The United States Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, declared monkeypox a public health emergency Thursday.
Monkeypox, a viral disease that causes characteristic sores across the body, currently has 7,510 total confirmed or suspected cases in the United States, 826 of which are in California.
“This action will further strengthen and accelerate the Biden-Harris Administration’s response in recognition of the continued rapid transmission of monkeypox in the U.S. and globally, and to signal the seriousness and urgency with which the Administration is responding,” HHS said in a press release.
The announcement comes after the state of California declared its own state of emergency to combat monkeypox.
HHS also announced in its statement that it has accelerated the delivery of 150,000 additional doses of the Jynneos vaccine to arrive in the United States next month instead of in November.
“(HHS’s declaration) really changes things logistically,” said John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “It makes it possible for the state and county governments to do a lot of things with greater facility than they otherwise could do them, both in terms of collecting data, and also making administrative changes.”
Among these administrative changes are increasing accessibility to vaccines and medications. Swartzberg said it also gives public health officers, like those in Berkeley, greater latitude and authority to carry out things that would help control the spread of monkeypox.
According to Swartzberg, the public health response to monkeypox has been slower than what is needed considering the speed at which the disease is spreading. However, if health departments lack personnel, actions to contain monkeypox will still remain limited, he noted.
“Public health has been stretched very thin obviously now because of COVID, and public health has been stretched very thin for decades because of underfunding,” Swartzberg said. “If you don’t have an adequate number of people to carry out these rules, it really limits the effect of these states of emergency.”
Swartzberg said the response to monkeypox was too slow in retrospect, but that the chances of monkeypox reaching the levels of the COVID-19 pandemic are “miniscule.” However, the concern, according to Swartzberg, is that monkeypox has the potential to become endemic.
Because monkeypox primarily exists in rodents, if it were to infect the rodent population in the United States — even if it is controlled among people — it will reenter the human population periodically, Swartzberg said. However, Swartzberg stressed that unlike COVID-19, there are already “great” tools to control monkeypox before it becomes endemic.
“We have a drug that works and we have vaccines that work,” Swartzberg said. “We just have to make them available as quickly as possible.”