The administration’s announcement follows similar decisions by health officials in New York, California and Illinois and global health leaders. On July 23, the World Health Organization declared monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern, its highest warning, after confirmed outbreaks in about 70 countries where the virus has not historically spread. .
Federal leaders have spent weeks debating whether to declare monkeypox a public health emergency, and officials said Thursday’s announcement was part of a broader campaign to contain the virus. The announcement follows the White House’s decision this week to appoint Robert J. Fenton Jr., Jr., a longtime Federal Emergency Management Agency official, as the national response coordinator for the virus.
HHS and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
US officials have been scrambling to find strategies to improve access to treatments and vaccines for monkeypox, with a limited supply of Jynennos, the only vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration to protect against the virus. Federal authorities have identified about 1.6 million people as being at highest risk for monkeypox, but the United States has only received enough doses of Jyennos to fully cover about 550,000 people.
More than 6,600 cases of monkeypox have been confirmed in the United States since May 18, with the vast majority occurring in men who have sex with men – a total that has doubled roughly every 8 days, but which experts estimate be a significant undercount. Authorities also reported at least five cases of monkeypox in children, who were believed to have been infected through family transmission.
WHO officials last week advised men who have sex with men to temporarily reduce their number of sexual partners in a bid to reduce transmission.
What to know about monkeypox symptoms, treatments and protection
While health officials have pointed out that monkeypox poses far less of a risk than the coronavirus — with only a handful of deaths worldwide and none to date in the United States — the virus can lead to fever, lymph nodes swollen lymphatics, rashes and often painful lesions that can last for weeks and lead to scarring. The virus is also linked to more serious complications in children, pregnant women and people with immune diseases.
The infectious disease, which comes from the same family of viruses as smallpox, is spread primarily through close contact, and experts say they believe skin-to-skin exposure during sexual activity is a major source of transmission in the current epidemic. But they warn the virus is spread through other forms of contact and can circulate outside the gay community, noting a handful of cases in women and children.
Some Biden officials have previously argued that declaring a monkeypox emergency would draw attention to the growing outbreak and bolster the country’s overall response. For example, the emergency declaration can be used to compel hospitals to report more data on their monkeypox patients and allow the Food and Drug Administration to accelerate medical countermeasures who otherwise could take months or years to pass traditional regulatory reviews.
On Thursday, federal officials also circulated an “options note” on how a public health emergency would improve the nation’s response to monkeypox, according to two officials who were not authorized to comment. POLITICO first reported the existence of the note.
Many public health experts have also confirmed the WHO’s decision to declare a public health emergency, saying a coordinated global response is “essential” to push back the growing epidemic. House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (DN.Y.) last week appeal to HHS to declare a public health emergency, calling the move a “crucial next step” in combating the spread of the virus.
But Becerra’s decision to declare monkeypox an emergency could lead to political complications for the White House, which has faced calls from lawyers to declare Gun violence a public health emergency and climate change a national emergency. Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and reproductive health advocacy groups have also lobbied the administration to declare abortion access a public health emergency following of the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade and led to new restrictions on abortion nationwide.
The Biden administration has also continued to renew public health emergency declarations, which expire every 90 days, for opioids and the coronavirus.