San Juan Basin Public Health is the first Colorado health department outside the Denver metro area to receive a supply of monkeypox vaccines, said Liane Jollon, director of the agency.
The supply was received Wednesday, she said.
“San Juan Basin Public Health has worked with the state of Colorado to get a small release of vaccine sent to our public health department,” she said. “We’re the only public health (agency) outside of the metro region that was able to do that.”
The health department has only a small number of vaccines, but those can be used to address high-risk exposure to monkeypox, she said.
“We will have on-hand post-exposure prophylaxis rather than having (it) get sent down by Denver,” she said. “Which means we have a much better chance of getting it to contacts quickly enough for it to work.”
Colorado received a supply of about 6,000 doses of the vaccine and has been greenlighted to receive more, Jollon said.
On Thursday, Xavier Becerr, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, announced that monkeypox is being elevated to a public health emergency.
A news release said the development would “strengthen and accelerate” the federal government’s response to the rapid transmission of monkeypox.
“The White House public health emergency declaration underscores the importance that our residents, our medical providers, and especially higher risk members of our community are aware of monkeypox and seeking care if needed,” Jollon said in an email Friday.
No cases of monkeypox have so far been identified in Archuleta or La Plata counties, but Jollon said she expects that to change as testing capabilities become more available across the state of Colorado.
So far, Colorado cases of monkeypox have overwhelmingly appeared in the Denver area, where most of the testing is being done.
Monkeypox cases have risen steeply since the first Colorado case was identified May 26, Jollon said. From May 26 through the last stretch of July, the state was identifying about five cases per week. But now, the state is seeing 35 to 40 cases per week.
“There is increased spread because it wasn’t contained,” she said. “And because with more widespread access to testing we do expect more identification of cases.”
Monkeypox is a virus that typically produces a rash on patients after the onset of flu-like symptoms, Jollon said. It spreads primarily by skin-to-skin contact, although it could also spread through contact with bedding, linens or towels from an infected person as well as respiratory droplets from close, prolonged contact.
Men who have sex with other men or identify as gay, bisexual or trans are considered to be the highest risk group to infection of this strain, particularly men who have had new or multiple partners in recent days and weeks, she said.
Jollon said monkeypox can spread through nonsexual types of close physical contact, and health professionals expect cases to crop up in people belonging to other demographics if the outbreak is not contained.
“It is not considered a sexually transmitted infection at this time,” she said. “It has just taken advantage of close skin-to-skin contact to travel through populations.”
The particular strain of monkeypox at the center of the global outbreak is believed to be related to a strain in west Africa with a lower fatality rate than other strains. It moved from Africa to an outbreak first identified in Europe, she said.
Jollon said monkeypox’s telltale symptom is the rash that it typically causes, but it also produces flu-like symptoms in infected persons anywhere from two to four weeks after they contract the virus.
The flu-like symptoms include the usual fever, headache, muscle aches, sore throat and cough, she said. Those symptoms might make initial diagnosis difficult because COVID-19 is still in the population, among other diseases that cause similar symptoms.
But the rash in addition to flu-like symptoms could help identify a monkeypox infection. In previous monkeypox outbreaks, the rashes formed primarily on patient’s faces and hands. In this outbreak, the rashes are forming primarily in people’s genital regions.
“That’s making this outbreak of monkeypox different from prior outbreaks of monkeypox across the world,” she said. “Because of that, if you experience flu-like symptoms and then a rash especially in the genital area, we really want people to seek treatment with their medical provider.
“Especially men who’ve had new or multiple partners in the last few weeks so that the medical community can diagnose you with monkeypox and then help protect people that you may have exposed.”
Medical providers can offer vaccines to a confirmed monkeypox patient’s closest contacts, Jollon said. It’s important to get tested so that the outbreak can be contained and patient’s loved ones can be protected.
Symptoms can last for two to four weeks.
Those possibly infected don’t want to spread it to others, she said. “But also, if we catch it early enough, we can get vaccines into the arms of people closest to you.”