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Four things to know about monkeypox cases and vaccinations in Colorado

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.

With monkeypox cases slowly climbing nationally, officials are working to administer a very small supply of vaccines.

Health experts and officials told KUNC people need to be aware and vigilant about monkeypox to prevent further spread. However, there’s no need to panic.

Anyone can get the rash and fever-causing virus through various forms of contact, but experts said monkeypox is unlikely to spread at the rate of something like COVID-19 or its “eradicated” cousin, smallpox.

Here are four things to know about monkeypox cases and vaccinations in Colorado:

1. A small number of monkeypox cases have been reported so far and the increase has been slow, but it could increase

As of July 7, the Centers for Disease Control reported nine confirmed cases in Colorado, 700 nationwide and 7,594 across the globe.

Health officials say it can spread through direct skin contact, particularly with persons who have the skin rash or lesions that typically come with infection; items touched by an infected person, like clothing or linens; or through extended exposure to droplets in a person’s breath or cough.

Unlike COVID, the respiratory droplet type of spread is less likely, experts say, because the exposure to the droplets has to be very close for very long.

“When someone is diagnosed with monkeypox, you get that characteristic rash or lesions, which is just something that's more apparent to people,” said Nicole Comstock, interim chief of the Communicable Disease Branch of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “With COVID, sometimes the symptoms might be less specific and might resemble symptoms from other viral respiratory pathogens, whereas monkeypox is more striking when you have symptoms.”

The more obvious symptoms may help ensure people isolate and get help from a medical provider, Comstock said, reducing the risk of spread.

Rashes usually develop after a few days of infection. Often, the pox presents with flu-like symptoms first.

2. Infection data so far show men who are gay, bisexual or sexually active with other men are at the highest risk for infection. But the virus can infect anyone.

Health experts stress monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted disease, like herpes, and “does not discriminate.”

“So right now it's spreading or it has spread a little bit among that community. But it doesn't mean it will only stay in that community and it doesn't mean that other folks aren't at risk as well,” said Marvyn Allen, Health Equity and Training Director for LGBTQ+ advocacy organization One Colorado. “It's a lot more around behavior and contact than it is around identity. It's just a matter of who you are engaging in close physical contact with and if they're infected.”

One Colorado has been working with the state health department to spread the word about monkeypox “to the right folks and in the right spot.”

“We're walking that line to where we want to update folks and give them information to keep themselves safe,” Allen said. “But we also don't want to cause a scare because there's no scare to be had, just information to share.”

They urge anyone who needs more information to reach out to a health provider, the state, or One Colorado at info@onecolorado.org.

3. There are very, very few vaccines available

Colorado will have 300 federally allocated doses available at pop-up vaccination sites in the Denver Metro area this weekend. About 250 were used at a site last week.

Only “men aged 18 years and older who are gay, bisexual, or other men who have sex with men who have had multiple or anonymous sex partners in the last 14 days” are eligible for the two-dose JYNNEOS vaccine, according to the state health department.

“At this point, this type of vaccine effort will really be focused on populations at greatest risk,” said CDPHE interim disease branch chief Nicole Comstock. “It's possible we could see cases in other populations as well, but we're using epidemiological data to really inform which populations to target with vaccine to try to limit spread.”

State and federal officials are working to produce and distribute more doses, with supply allocated based on the prevalence of infection in each state.

“Really excited to see the vaccine come out. I think it’ll make folks feel a lot safer and keep folks a lot safer if they are potentially exposed or might be potentially exposed to monkeypox now,” Allen said. “Looking forward to seeing a spread out to other areas to into rural areas of Colorado, making sure everyone has equitable access.”

Anyone who thinks they are at risk can request a vaccination appointment by filling out a form on CDPHE’s website. The vaccine can help prevent severe illness if taken within a few days of exposure to monkeypox.

“We'll closely monitor the situation and see how the virus might be spreading and adjust our recommendations as we as we go and have it really be data-driven for sure,” Comstock said.

4. Testing is crucial and capacity is just starting to ramp up

“The current epidemiology suggests that ongoing spread is probably more than we know,” said Dr. Michelle Baron, director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth, told KUNC. “There is some unique properties of the current outbreak, and it's people that are having prolonged contact with people that have the lesions or are in the early stages where they don't realize that the rash is actually developing.”

Baron emphasized the importance of isolating if possible and asking a medical professional about testing at the first sign of symptoms.

“I don't want people to be overly worried, but … awareness is important because I think we all get rashes of different kinds when we're in the summer months,” she said, listing poison ivy exposure as an example. “If you get a rash, it's important to have it evaluated.”

While many experts and officials are making similar suggestions, currently, CDPHE only has one listed location where people can get tested for potential monkeypox exposure.

Many cases are likely being missed, experts told NPR in late June, because of a limited testing capacity that requires doctors to go through an often onerous process to order a test.

On Wednesday, the CDC announced it would be working North Carolina-based LabCorp to double the nation’s testing capacity. The company expects to be able to perform up to 10,000 tests per week which healthcare providers can order from the company’s site.

Five more nationwide laboratories are expected to start offering tests in the coming weeks as the CDC ships tests to them and trains employees on administration.

As KUNC’s rural and small communities reporter, I help further the newsroom’s efforts to ensure that all of Northern Colorado’s communities are heard.
As the Newscast Editor and Producer, I provide listeners with news and information critical to our region.
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