The Biden administration declared the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency on Thursday, hoping to speed up vaccine distribution and corral the virus so it does not become a permanent fixture in the U.S.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said he made the decision because the government wants to raise awareness and deploy new tools in the face of a rising case tally.
“I will be declaring a public health emergency on monkeypox,” Mr. Becerra said. “We are prepared to take our response to the next level in addressing this virus.”
The World Health Organization recently named the spread of monkeypox in nonendemic countries a public health emergency of international concern.
Numerous U.S. states, counties and cities from coast to coast got ahead of Mr. Becerra and invoked special powers to try and accelerate their responses.
President Biden on Wednesday tapped two men with decades of emergency experience, Robert Fenton and Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, to coordinate the federal effort.
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“We will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to combat this virus,” Mr. Fenton said.
The emergency declaration, which invokes Section 319 of the Public Health Service Act, will allow the government to expand the number of personnel devoted to vaccine distribution and other response efforts.
Declarations under Section 319 last 90 days unless extended, and allow HHS to tap into reserve funds, reassign personnel or cut red tape that may stand in the way of an urgent response to a crisis.
Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the declaration will prod jurisdictions to share their vaccine data with her centralized agency if they don’t already.
Monkeypox is endemic to parts of Africa, but it has been spreading in the U.S. and other nonendemic countries since midspring.
While it rarely causes death, the disease features a painful rash and lesions. Patients also report fatigue, muscle aches and fever.
The U.S. has recorded more than 6,600 cases of monkeypox, and the mounting caseload shows no signs of slowing down.
Mayors, governors and LGBTQ activists have complained about the pace of testing and vaccine distribution as cases mount, predominantly among men who have sex with men. The virus is spread through close personal contact and anyone can contract it.
Dr. Daskalakis said while monkeypox is not classified as a sexually transmitted disease, the federal effort is working on nonstigmatizing messages to reach hard-hit social networks in the gay and bisexual community.
For weeks, lawmakers from both parties have urged the Biden administration to declare it an emergency or detail a firmer plan from speeding up the response.
“A communicable disease outbreak following so closely on the heels of COVID-19 should be met with a swift, decisive, and organized response,” Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, said Thursday. “Instead, HHS is repeating the exact same mistakes they made during the pandemic: painfully slow to begin testing, wholly disorganized in distributing vaccines and treatments, and messaging that’s confusing and outdated. HHS appears to have learned nothing from the tragedy of the last three years.”
Mr. Becerra said things are improving, citing the delivery of 600,000 of the 1.1 million Jynneos vaccines it has in hand. He also said diagnostic capacity continues to rise, standing at 80,000 tests per week compared to 6,000 at the start of the outbreak.
Food and Drug Commissioner Robert Califf said his agency is revising its dosing guidance for the Jynneos vaccine.
Clinicians will be advised to give a portion of the doses as an intradermal injection — a method that delivers the shot right below the epidermis and can improve the immune response.
Govs. Gavin Newsom of California, Kathy Hochul of New York and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois are among Democratic governors who invoked emergency powers ahead of HHS to improve coordination among state agencies and expand the number of entities that can conduct testing or perform vaccinations.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, criticized those leaders at a press conference Wednesday.
“I am so sick of politicians, and we saw this with COVID, trying to sow fear into the population,” Mr. DeSantis said. “We’re not doing fear.”
“You see some of these states declaring states of emergency. They’re going to abuse those emergency powers to restrict your freedom,” he said. “I guarantee you that’s what will happen.”
Rep. Charlie Crist, a Democrat who is running for governor against Mr. DeSantis, said his opponent needed to take the disease more seriously.
“While Governor DeSantis dismisses Monkeypox, at-risk Floridians still need better information, better testing, and access to vaccines for prevention. Get it done!” Mr. Crist tweeted.