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State health commissioner on monkeypox: 'It's spreading rapidly'

This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows mature, oval-shaped monkeypox virus particles, left, and spherical immature particles, right.
Cynthia S. Goldsmith, Russell Regner
CDC via AP
This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows mature, oval-shaped monkeypox virus particles, left, and spherical immature particles, right.

New York State’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, says monkeypox continues to spread, and people should be aware of the risks, and how to access the limited supply of vaccines.

Late last Friday, Gov. Kathy Hochul declared monkeypox a State Disaster Emergency.

Dr. Bassett says the disease has already been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization, and her health department has declared the disease an imminent threat to public health.

“It’s spreading rapidly, it’s spreading globally, it’s spreading in ways that we haven’t seen before for this particular virus,” Bassett said.

Bassett said the governor’s order enables the state to take more steps to respond. They include allowing a larger category of health care professionals to administer monkeypox vaccines, including emergency medical services personnel, pharmacists and midwives. The order also makes it easier for doctors and nurse practitioners to issue orders for patients to receive the vaccines. It will help the state health department better track the spread of the virus, by requiring providers to share vaccine data.

Monkeypox, compared to COVID-19, is less contagious, and is not an airborne virus, but is spread mainly through skin-to-skin contact.

“It’s nothing like COVID,” Bassett said, who reported the state is recording 4,000 to 5,000 cases of COVID-19 a day, while there have been just over 1,600 total cases of monkeypox so far.

Monkeypox usually does not cause serious illness, though the lesions associated with the virus are painful. It can, in a small number of cases, result in hospitalization or death.

NHS England High Consequence Infectious Diseases Network
Visual examples of Monkeypox.

Currently, transmission is more prevalent among men who have sexual relations with men. Bassett, who began her career during the AIDS epidemic, says she wants to get the word out to keep safe those who are currently most vulnerable to the disease, without stigmatizing any particular community.

“We both have to sound the alarm and we have to make it clear that this does not something that spreads because people are gay. It can affect anyone," Bassett said.

The state of New York is not holding any vaccine clinics. For now, it’s being left up to individual counties, as well as the city of New York, to offer them. The supply is limited to counties where there are confirmed cases, which include Suffolk County, Westchester County, Nassau County, Saratoga County, Rockland County, and Sullivan County.

monkeypox data
NYS Department of Health
A data table showing Monkeypox cases by region and county.

“We are targeting out distribution,” Bassett said. “But the bottom line is that we need more vaccines.”

A check of the vaccine appointment websites for those counties listed August dates for vaccine clinics. All but Westchester County said that no more appointments are available for first doses. Westchester was offering multiple appointments on Aug. 8 between 10:20 a.m. and 5:20 p.m. The full vaccine requires two doses, four weeks apart.

Last week, Hochul said the federal government would provide an additional 110,000 vaccine doses, on top of the 60,000 already distributed.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment and interviews newsmakers. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.