Monkeypox Declared a Public Health Emergency in Illinois. Here's What That Means

More than 500 infections have been reported across Illinois, according to state officials

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday declared monkeypox a public health emergency, classifying the state as a "disaster area" in regards to the disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Illinois is the state with the third-highest number of reported monkeypox infections reported, at 520. New York has the most reported cases, at over 1,300, followed by California, which has more than 800 reported cases.

Nationwide more than 5,100 infections have occurred.

Here's what the governor's declaration means for Illinois residents, and what to know as the virus continues its spread across the state in ways that experts say they haven't seen before.

Monkeypox Vaccines

With the declaration in effect, officials can more easily secure monkeypox virus (MPV) vaccine shipments and ramp up distribution to ensure the most impacted communities receive treatment as soon as possible, according to a news release from Pritzker's office.

"Proclaiming a state of disaster will allow the Illinois Department of Public Helath to expand vaccine and testing capacities with the help of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) and via state and federal recovery and assistance funds," the release said. "This proclamation will aid in facilitating the complicated logistics and transportation of vaccines across the state to reach the most impacted communities efficiently."

According to a July 27 update from the Chicago Department of Public Health, the monkeypox vaccine supply remains very limited, "though it is expected to continue to ramp up over the next few months as the U.S. acquires additional doses." 

CDPH also noted that "Vaccine is only available from the national stockpile and federal partners distribute it to states and cities based on population and MPV case counts. Chicago received an additional 15,000 doses of the vaccine over the weekend, by far the city’s largest allotment to date."

"However," CDPH continued, "many more individuals want vaccine than can receive it."

CDPH says that is prioritizing the vaccine for those at "highest risk," which includes "any individual who has had close physical contact with someone diagnosed with MPV or whose sexual partner was diagnosed with MPV in the last 14 days."

The city says that limited vaccine is available through some healthcare providers. and that as vaccine supply improves, more individuals will be eligible for vaccine.

According to public health officials, the full course of vaccine consists of 2 doses given at least 4 weeks apart. It takes about 2 weeks for the first dose to take full effect.

Those at Risk

While doctors have said that the overall risk to the general public remains low, with transmission is most often occurring from close personal or sexual contact -- WHO’s top monkeypox expert Dr. Rosamund Lewis last week said that 99% of all monkeypox cases beyond Africa were in men and that of those, 98% involved men who have sex with men -- the illness is spreading in ways that experts haven't seen before.

Still, doctors are stressing that says the virus des not discriminate.

“MPV is not a ‘gay disease’,” CDPH Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said. “There’s nothing inherent in the biology of the virus that limits it to men who have sex with men. The virus spreads through tight-knit social networks; it does not discriminate.”

According to the Chicago Department of Public Health, "Person-to-person transmission is possible through "close physical contact with monkeypox sores, items that have been contaminated with fluids or sores (clothing, bedding, etc.), or through respiratory droplets following prolonged face-to-face contact."

Arwady said most cases "are coming from much more intimate skin-to-skin contact or kissing" and noted that most casual contact and day-to-day activities - including things like shopping in crowded stores, going to a bar or coffee house, riding crowded CTA trains and buses, or using gym equipment or public restrooms - pose little to no risk for contracting MPV.

According to Dr. Albert Ko, a professor of public health and epidemiology at Yale University, “The bottom line is we’ve seen a shift in the epidemiology of monkeypox where there’s now widespread, unexpected transmission. There are some genetic mutations in the virus that suggest why that may be happening, but we do need a globally-coordinated response to get it under control."

Monkeypox Symptoms

The CDPH says Monkeypox is a rare, but potentially serious viral illness, which often begins with flu-like symptoms and swelling of the lymph nodes, and progresses to a rash on the face and body, health experts said.

Virus symptoms range from fever, aches and rashes all over the body.

"Suspected cases may present with early flu-like symptoms and progress to lesions that may begin on one site on the body and spread to other parts," CDPH previously stated.

Dr. Irfan Hafiz, an infectious disease specialist with Northwestern Medicine’s McHenry and Huntley hospitals, said the virus causes symptoms that are similar to several maladies, including chickenpox or smallpox.

“It can, to the layperson, look like chickenpox or warts,” he previously said. “But these (sores) tend to be in exposed areas.”

Health experts also stated the illness can be confused with a sexually transmitted infection like syphilis or herpes, or with varicella zoster virus.

In the U.S., some experts have speculated whether monkeypox might be on the verge of becoming an entrenched sexually transmitted disease in the country, like gonorrhea, herpes and HIV.

National Response

The Biden administration is considering declaring a nationwide public health emergency in response to the growing outbreak, but has yet to do so. Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID response coordinator, said last week the administration was looking at how a public health emergency declaration might bolster the U.S. response to the outbreak.

“There’s no final decision on this that I’m aware of,” Jha said. “It’s an ongoing, but a very active conversation at HHS.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra has the authority to declare a public health emergency under the Public Health Services Act. A declaration can help mobilize federal financial assistance to respond to a disease outbreak.

The World Health Organization last week activated its highest alert level, declaring the virus a public health emergency of international concern.

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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