Saturday, May 27

Biden officials plan to declare monkeypox a public health emergency


The Biden administration plans to declare the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency as soon as Thursday in an effort to galvanize awareness and unlock additional flexibility and funding to fight the virus’s spread.

The declaration would come from Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, who is expected to discuss the plan at an afternoon briefing, said two officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment. The health secretary is planning a second declaration empowering federal officials to expedite medical countermeasures, such as potential treatments and vaccines, without going through full-fledged federal reviews. That would also allow for greater flexibility in how the current supply of vaccines is administered, the officials said.

The administration’s announcement follows similar decisions by health officials in New York, California and Illinois and global health leaders. The World Health Organization on July 23 declared that monkeypox was a public health emergency of international concern, its highest-level 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 that Thursday’s planned announcement is part of a broader push to contain the virus. The announcement follows the White House’s decision this week to name Robert J. Fenton Jr., Jr., a longtime official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as the coordinator of the national response to the virus.

HHS and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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U.S. officials have scrambled for strategies to boost access to monkeypox treatments and vaccines, with limited supply of Jynennos, the only vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration to protect against the virus. Federal officials have identified about 1.6 million people as highest risk for monkeypox, but the U.S. has only received enough Jyennos doses 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 among men who have sex with men — a total that has doubled about every 8 days, but which experts believe is a significant undercount. Officials have also reported at least five cases of monkeypox in children, who are believed to have gotten infected through household transmission.

WHO officials last week advised men who have sex with men to temporarily reduce their number of sexual partners in an attempt to reduce transmission.

What to know about monkeypox symptoms, treatments and protection

While health officials have stressed that monkeypox poses far fewer risks than coronavirus — with just a handful of deaths globally and none to date in the United States — the virus can lead to fever, swollen lymph nodes, rash and often painful lesions that can last for weeks and result in scarring. The virus also is linked to more severe complications in children, pregnant women and people with immune conditions.

The infectious-disease, which comes from the same family of viruses as smallpox, spreads 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 outbreak. But they caution that the virus spreads through other forms of touch and can circulate outside the gay community, noting a handful of cases in women and children.

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Some Biden officials have previously argued that declaring an emergency for monkeypox would call attention to the growing outbreak and strengthen the nation’s overall response. For instance, the emergency declaration can be used to compel hospitals to report more data about their monkeypox patients, and enable the Food and Drug Administration to expedite medical countermeasures that might otherwise take months or years to undergo traditional regulatory reviews.

Federal officials on Thursday also circulated an “options memo” for how a public health emergency would improve the nation’s monkeypox response, according to two officials who were not authorized to comment. POLITICO first reported the existence of the memo.

Many public health experts also have affirmed the WHO’s decision to declare a public health emergency, saying that a coordinated global response is “essential” to beating back the growing outbreak. House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) last week called on HHS to declare a public health emergency, calling the move “a crucial next step” to fight the virus’ spread.

But Becerra’s decision to declare monkeypox an emergency could raise political complications for the White House, which has faced calls from advocates to declare gun violence a public health emergency and climate change a national emergency. Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and reproductive health rights groups have also lobbied the administration to declare access to abortion a public health emergency in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade and led to new abortion restrictions around the nation.

The Biden administration has also continued to renew public health emergency declarations, which expire every 90 days, for opioids and the coronavirus.

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