Health secretary urges Congress and states to do more to help contain monkeypox outbreak

People line up for a monkeypox vaccine at the Balboa Sports Center in the Encino neighborhood of Los Angeles, California on July 27, 2022.

Robin Beck | AFP | Getty Images

The US Health Secretary said Thursday the federal government needs Congress to end the growing monkeypox outbreak and that states, cities and communities need to do more locally to prevent the spread of the virus.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters by phone that the federal government has done everything it can to get ahead of the outbreak, but it does not oversee the state’s public health response.

“We do not control public health in the 50 states, territories and tribal jurisdictions. We rely on our partnership to work with them. They should work with us,” Becerra said during a phone call with reporters on Thursday.

Becerra said HHS has told Congress what resources the department needs to end the outbreak, but it’s up to lawmakers to act.

“We have communicated to Congress what we believe would be a good step forward in the fight against monkeypox, which will be required in terms of resources and authority to be able to move ahead, get ahead of monkeypox and end this outbreak.” said the Minister of Health. .

There are 4,639 cases of monkeypox in the United States in 46 states, Washington, and Puerto Rico, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The largest outbreaks occur in New York, California, Illinois, Florida, Georgia and Texas. There are currently more cases of monkeypox confirmed in the United States than in any other country in the world.

The Biden administration’s response to the outbreak has come under scrutiny by Congress as the number of infections has risen. House Democrats called on the administration to declare a public health emergency in response to the outbreak, according to a letter to President Joe Biden last week. Becerra indicated that he is weighing the declaration of a public health emergency as HHS monitors the response to the outbreak across the country.

Senate Health Committee Chair Patty Murray said in a letter to Becerra that she was concerned that healthcare workers and patients do not have the resources they need to respond to the outbreak. But Becerra on Thursday said more needs to be done to prevent local transmission of the virus by reaching communities most at risk: men who have sex with men.

“All communities that may be affected, including those most at risk, have every reason to understand monkeypox and do what they can to stay ahead,” Becerra said. “So this is prevention, this is treatment, this is education and this is coverage,” he said.

The CDC recommends that people avoid skin-to-skin contact with anyone who has a rash similar to monkeypox. among other measures. People with monkeypox should isolate at home and consider avoiding sex while you’re sick, according to the CDC. For those who choose to have sex with a partner with monkeypox, CDC guidelines for reducing the risk of infection have been issued.

Since May, the US government has supplied more than 330,000 doses of the monkeypox vaccine called Jynneos. The Department of Health and Human Services is set to release 786,000 more doses of the vaccine. State and local health departments can start ordering these vaccines as early as tomorrow.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky acknowledged earlier this month that demand for vaccines is outpacing supply, leading to long lines at clinics and protests in some cities. Becerra said there is now more than enough vaccine available in the US to meet demand.

“We have made vaccines and treatments far in excess of what is currently needed available to all jurisdictions that manage their public health systems, and it is they who are working with clinicians to make all three – tests, treatments and vaccines – available. . ” said the Minister of Health.

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HHS has placed orders with Denmark-based manufacturer Bavarian Nordic for more than 5 million additional doses of Jynneos vaccine through 2023. The US also has 11.1 million more doses in stock at Bavarian Nordic, according to HHS.

But Dawn O’Connell, head of US preparedness and response at HHS, said those 11.1 million doses needed to be filled and completed before they could be given as shots. O’Connell said turning those doses into finished vaccines would require additional funding from Congress.

The US also has 1.7 million courses of tecovirimat antiviral treatment in the national stockpile. Medical professionals use tecovirimat to treat people with monkeypox, but this requires an additional layer of bureaucracy because the drug is only approved for smallpox. The CDC has cut red tape to make it easier for doctors to prescribe tecovirimat.

The federal government has ramped up testing for monkeypox, bringing in several commercial labs this month. The US currently has the capacity to test up to 80,000 people per week for the virus, according to HHS. Becerra said the number of tests being conducted is only a fraction of current US capacity.

“We believe we have done everything we can at the federal level to work with our state and local partners and affected communities to make sure we can get ahead of this in this outbreak,” Becerra said. “But everyone has to take the oars and row. Everyone has to play their part.”