Amid growing calls from health officials across the country, the Biden administration declared the current monkeypox outbreak to be a public health emergency in the U.S. on Thursday afternoon.
The declaration, which was made by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, comes a little less than two weeks after the World Health Organization designated the outbreak an emergency of international concern.
By issuing a declaration, HHS will be able to take a series of actions including accessing funds set aside for such an emergency as well as appointing personnel to positions directly responding to the emergency. It also gives Health Secretary Xavier Becerra significant flexibility to bend federal rules or waive requirements on government health programs like Medicaid, Medicare and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
“We’re prepared to take our response to the next level in addressing this virus,” Becerra said on a media call Thursday. “And we urge every American to take the process seriously and to take responsibility to help us tackle this.”
A public health emergency declaration lasts for 90 days, but it may be extended by Becerra. There have been four national public health emergencies declared in the last 15 years.
“The public health emergency will allow us to explore additional strategies to get vaccines and treatments more quickly out to the affected communities. And it will allow us to get more data from jurisdictions so we can effectively track, and attack, this outbreak,” Bob Fenton, the new White House monkeypox coordinator, said on the media call.
The CDC will now also now receive data from all jurisdictions reporting who is vaccinated as well as data on testing and hospitalizations.
Last week, New York became the first state to declare monkeypox a “disaster emergency,” with officials calling New York City the “epicenter of the outbreak.” Illinois and California soon followed, with both states reporting hundreds of confirmed cases.
There had been mounting pressure for the federal government to declare monkeypox a public health emergency, as confirmed cases have rapidly emerged in recent weeks.
“As the monkeypox virus continues to spread across the United States, I urge you to immediately declare a public health emergency so that the federal government can use every resource and tool available in its response and rapidly increase availability and access to vaccines, tests, and treatments nationwide,” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, said in a letter to HHS last week.
“The federal government must take every step possible to mitigate the threat monkeypox poses to the health of people in the United States before it is too late,” she added.
Of the more than 26,000 cases reported globally, over 6,600 cases have been reported in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cases have been detected in 48 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Montana and Wyoming are the only states that have yet to confirm cases.
The most common symptoms associated with monkeypox, a cousin of the smallpox virus, are swollen lymph nodes, fever, headache, fatigue and muscle aches. The rash may be painful and have lesions that look like pimples or blisters that can occur on the face and other parts of the body.
There have been no deaths due to monkeypox reported in the U.S. However, in recent days, several countries that have not historically reported monkeypox cases, including Brazil and Spain, have confirmed deaths due to the virus, according to The Associated Press.
People are typically infected by close person-to-person contact, including intimate contact. It is possible for the disease to also spread through droplets from face-to-face contact with an infected person, or through droplets on linens, sheets, clothes, and surfaces, when people are close for prolonged periods.
However, in the current outbreak, most of the spread has come from coming into prolonged skin-to-skin contact with infected people’s lesions or bodily fluids.
Before the outbreak, most cases occurred in countries where the virus is usually found or endemic — typically central and western Africa.
At this time, the majority of cases in the current outbreak have been detected in gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men. However, health officials have repeatedly stressed that anyone can contract the virus and there is currently no evidence it is a sexually transmitted disease.
Over the weekend, the CDC warned in a health alert that some evidence suggests people with uncontrolled HIV and children younger than 8 years old could develop more severe illness if infected. In addition, while it is unclear if pregnancy puts someone at greater risk for more severe illness, there is a risk of transmitting the virus to the fetus during pregnancy, or to a newborn after birth.
The Biden administration, alongside global health officials, has vowed to ramp up the United States’ response to monkeypox, as more cases have emerged.
As monkeypox cases have emerged across the country, demand for vaccines has surged across the country, particularly in large metropolises like New York City.
In the coming weeks, HHS officials have reported that a total of 1.1 million doses of the JYNNEOS vaccine will be available to states and jurisdictions across the country.
Federal health officials said Thursday that more than 600,000 doses of the Jynneos vaccine — which is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for smallpox and monkeypox — have been delivered across the country.
To increase the number of doses available, FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf said the agency has “identified a potential solution.”
“We’re considering an approach … that would allow health care providers to use an existing one-dose vial of the vaccine to administer a total of up to five separate doses,” he said.
The vaccine would be given in a smaller, shallower injection under the skin, a method Califf said would still be safe and effective but would allow up to five doses to be pulled from one vial.
Stretching the supplies could help “close the gap,” Califf said. He added that a decision will be made in the coming days.