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California not declaring monkeypox a health emergency, despite growing concern about spread

A man holds a sign urging increased access to the monkeypox vaccine during a protest in San Francisco, July 18, 2022.
Haven Daley
AP Photo
A man holds a sign urging increased access to the monkeypox vaccine during a protest in San Francisco, July 18, 2022.

California is not yet declaring a state of emergency over monkeypox despite growing concern over the virus and its spread, state health officials said Friday.

Dr. Tomas Aragon, director of the California Department of Public Health, said at a public health briefing Friday morning that the department continues to take the outbreak “very, very seriously.” He said the state is focusing on mobilizing the “tremendous resources and infrastructure” it’s built in response to COVID-19, including case investigation, contact tracing, disease surveillance and communication with local health jurisdictions.

“We continue to review everything and we’ll decide whether we need to do anything additional like declare a public health emergency,” he said. “We’re in a much better situation to be able to deal with monkeypox than if this had occurred two years ago.”

There were nearly 800 confirmed monkeypox cases in California as of Thursday. San Francisco and Los Angeles County account for more than two-thirds of the cases. Sacramento has reported 43 cases, San Joaquin four and Placer County discovered its first case this week.

San Francisco declared a state of emergency Thursday as cases there reached 281. State Senator Scott Wiener, who represents the city, earlier this week called on the state to enact a similar declaration to increase flexibility around testing, contracting for services and administering vaccines.

Since men who have sex with men are currently the most impacted population, Wiener said that it's “clear we are being left behind once again.”

Aragon said Friday the CDPH is committed to reducing stigma toward the LGBTQ community, underscoring that “no single individual or community is to blame for the spread of any virus” and that “monkeypox can affect anyone.”

Also last week, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon announced he sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra asking the former California Congressman and state Attorney General to declare a national state of emergency. There are nearly 5,000 reported monkeypox cases in the U.S. as of Friday.

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a disease that causes fever, rash and swollen lymph nodes. The lesions are similar to those caused by smallpox.

Despite the name monkeypox, it doesn't come from monkeys. The disease was first discovered in 1958in colonies of monkeys kept for research, which led to the name.

Unlike COVID-19, monkeypox does not spread through the air, but only through "close contact with lesions, body fluids, respiratory droplets and contaminated materials such as bedding," according to the WHO.

Advocacy director for the Sacramento LGBT Center, Alexis Sanchez, told CapRadio she’s been trying to underscore that monkeypox is not just a sexually transmitted disease, but one that can spread through any close skin-to-skin contact.

“If someone with monkeypox rashes borrows your hoodie and you put it on without washing it first, that could be a route of exposure,” she said. “Or if you’re playing basketball with a friend that has monkeypox and you’re having close skin-to-skin contact with that person, you’ve run the risk of contracting monkeypox.”

While the disease most often occurs in central and western Africa, cases and outbreaks have occurred throughout the world, including one in the midwestern U.S. in 2003.

How can monkeypox be treated?

Though the illness typically runs its course with no special treatment after 2 to 4 weeks, there is a vaccine available for monkeypox.

On Wednesday, federal health officials announced they would distribute 780,000 doses of monkeypox vaccines to cities and counties based on their size, risk and severity of the current outbreak. Some vaccine clinics in San Francisco have had to close due to lack of supplies, and Weiner earlier this week blamed the federal government for its slow response in acquiring vaccines to prevent an outbreak.

"We believe we have done everything we can at the federal level to work with our state and local partners and communities affected to make sure we can stay ahead of this and end this outbreak," Xavier Becerra, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, told NPR.

At the Friday briefing, Aragon said California has currently received close to 37,200 doses of vaccine, about 25,300 of which have been sent to local health departments.

“The state allocates doses to local health departments based on a number of factors, including the number of reported monkeypox cases in an area and estimate of at-risk populations,” CPDH said in a press release Friday.

The state expects an additional 72,000 vaccine doses from the federal government, with an extra 48,000 doses for LA County.

There is also an antiviral prescription drug tecovirimat (TPOXX), a two-week regimen of pills, that can be used to treat monkeypox; while access is limited, CDPH said in its Friday press release the treatment is now available at more than 30 facilities and providers across the state.

“Individuals seeking treatment should contact their health care provider or local clinic,” the release reads.

Locally, Sacramento County is offering vaccines through Pucci’s Pharmacy by appointment only and has partnered with the Sacramento LGBT Center to offer walk-in vaccine clinics.

The center’s next clinic is on Aug. 1 from 12 to 4 p.m. while supplies last, at 1045 20th St.

Vaccination in the county is currently limited to men who have sex with men or trans people who meet at least one of five specific criteria.

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