WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal government declared a public health emergency Thursday to ramp up its response to an outbreak of monkeypox. It has infected more than 7,100 Americans.
The announcement frees up money and other resources to fight the virus, which can cause fever, body aches, chills, fatigue and pimple-like bumps on many parts of the body.
“We are ready to take our response to this virus to the next level, and we urge every American to take monkeypox seriously,” said Xavier Becerra, head of the US Department of Health and Human Services.
The HHS declaration comes as the Biden administration faces criticism over the availability of the monkeypox vaccine. Clinics in major cities such as New York and San Francisco said they did not have enough of the two-shot vaccine to meet demand, and some had to stop offering the second dose in order to provide the first dose.
It has made more than 1.1 million doses available, helping boost domestic diagnostic capacity to 80,000 tests a week, according to the White House.
Monkeypox virus is spread through prolonged skin-to-skin contact, including hugging, petting and kissing, and sharing bedding and clothing. So far, those who have been infected are mostly men who have sex with men. But health officials emphasize that the virus can infect anyone.
No one died in the United States. Several deaths have been reported in other countries.
Earlier this week, the Biden administration named top officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to serve as White House coordinators for the monkeypox response.
Thursday’s declaration is an important and long overdue step, said Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University.
“This shows the seriousness and purpose of the US government and is setting off a global alarm,” he said.
According to the declaration, HHS can withdraw emergency funds, hire or reassign staff to fight the outbreak and take other measures to control the virus.
For example, the announcement should help the federal government get more information from state and local health officials about who is getting the infection and who is getting vaccinated. This information can be used to better understand how the epidemic develops and how well the vaccine works.
According to Gostin, the US government should have been more cautious and declared a national emergency earlier. Public health measures have faced legal challenges in recent years, but Gostin didn’t expect that to happen with monkeypox.
“This is a textbook public health emergency,” Gostin said. “This is not a red or blue state issue. “There is no political opposition to fighting monkeypox.”
He noted that the public health emergency, as during the COVID-19 pandemic, could be extended.
The urgency of the current response stems from the rapid spread of the virus and the limited availability of a two-dose vaccine called Jynneos, which is considered the main medical tool against the disease.
Doses given at 28-day intervals are currently given to people after they are thought to have been exposed as a preventative measure against symptoms.
A state of emergency was declared during Becerra’s conversation with journalists. During the call, Food and Drug Commissioner Robert Califf said regulators are considering an approach that would expand the supply by allowing healthcare professionals to vaccinate up to five people with each vial of Ginneos instead of one.
Under this “dose-saving” approach, doctors and others use a shallower subcutaneous injection instead of the subcutaneous injection recommended on the vaccine label.
Califf said a decision authorizing such treatment could come “within days.”
That would require another declaration to allow the government to change guidelines for how the vaccine is administered, officials said.
Health officials pointed to a study published in 2015 that found the Jynneos vaccine was just as effective at stimulating the immune system as when the needle penetrated deeper into other tissues.
But experts acknowledged that information is still being gathered about whether routine use of one or two full doses works against outbreaks.
Other health care organizations have made declarations similar to those issued by HHS.
Last week, the World Health Organization declared monkeypox a public health emergency, with cases reported in more than 70 countries. A global emergency is the WHO’s highest level of alert, but the designation does not mean that the disease is particularly contagious or deadly.
California, Illinois and New York have made declarations in the past week, as have New York, San Francisco and San Diego County.
Gregg Gonsalves, an infectious disease expert at Yale University, said the declaration of a national public health emergency and the naming of the monkeypox king are “symbolic actions.”
What is important is that the government is taking the necessary measures to control the outbreak and – if monkeypox becomes endemic – it should have a plan for how to deal with it, he said.
Monkeypox is endemic in parts of Africa, where humans are infected by bites from rodents or small animals. It usually does not spread easily between people.
But in May, a wave of unexpected cases began to appear in Europe and the United States. More than 26,000 cases have now been registered in countries where monkeypox has not been reported.
Stobbe reported from New York City. Associated Press health writer Matthew Perrone contributed to this report.