Orange County’s public health department is gearing up to get monkeypox vaccines to the highest-risk residents as officials there say the cases will increase over the next few weeks.
“For monkeypox, there’s just no reason to believe we’re not going to continue to see more cases for the weeks ahead,” said Dr. Matt Zahn, OC Health Care Agency’s medical director of communicable disease.
“We are at 24 cases of monkeypox in Orange County,” Zahn said. “All of the cases we have identified in Orange County so far are men who have sex with men.”
At a Thursday news conference hosted by Supervisor Katrina Foley, OC Health Care Agency Director Clayton Chau warned against stigmatizing the disease.
“We need your help to really destigmatize monkeypox, it is not a gay disease,” Chau said. “Not all men having sex with men identify as gay or bisexual.”
“This is another disease that we need to get a hold of,” he said, adding that it hasn’t killed anyone in the United States so far.
Throughout the state, Chau said, it’s been found outside of the LGBTQ community and to prevent spread it needs to be destigmatized.
“It’s happened in other communities as well.”
On Wednesday, the county’s public health department issued a news release detailing how to decrease the risk of being exposed to monkeypox by avoiding direct skin contact with people who have rashes – one of the major symptoms of the disease.
“What exactly is the path or the cadence or the speed of the number of cases of monkeypox, I don’t have an answer to that,” Zahn said when reporters asked what kind of increases OC can expect.
Zahn said the numbers are going up and that the rate of new cases is increasing.
“Certainly, that is a concern,” he said. “I expect we are going to be in this for at least the next several weeks.”
Chau said gay or bisxeual men who’ve had a sexually transmitted disease in the past three months, have engaged in “survival or transactional sex” or have gone to a sex party should consider getting the vaccines.
People can sign up for a vaccine here.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of monkeypox include fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes, chills, exhaustion, respiratory issues and rashes that could be near the genitals or anus.
“Monkeypox symptoms usually start within 3 weeks of exposure to the virus. If someone has flu-like symptoms, they will usually develop a rash 1-4 days later,” the CDC found, adding the illness lasts up to four weeks.
The CDC notes that some people will only experience a few of the symptoms.
“Most people with monkeypox will get a rash,” states the CDC.
This week, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency due to the increasing monkeypox cases Californians are seeing.
“California is working urgently across all levels of government to slow the spread of monkeypox, leveraging our robust testing, contact tracing and community partnerships strengthened during the pandemic to ensure that those most at risk are our focus for vaccines, treatment and outreach,” said Governor Gavin Newsom in a press release Monday.
“We’ll continue to work with the federal government to secure more vaccines, raise awareness about reducing risk, and stand with the LGBTQ community fighting stigmatization.”
According to the press release, the state has distributed over 25,000 doses of the monkeypox vaccine out of the more than 61,000 they received.
Officials in OC’s neighboring county, San Diego, also declared a state of emergency this week in response to the spread of monkeypox.
So have officials in Los Angeles county.
Orange County has not.
On Thursday afternoon, most major U.S. news outlets reported that President Biden’s administration declared a national emergency on monkeypox.
Zahn said he expects the cases of monkeypox to increase until vaccines become readily available.
“The question has always been will we get a fair share of the vaccine to make sure the spread doesn’t go wild.”
Chau said the high case increases in Los Angeles County could foreshadow Orange County’s near future.
According to the LA County Public Health Department, there’s 431 confirmed cases in the neighboring county.
“Orange County and LA County, we are close to each other and people commingle; it’s not like there’s a gate that you open,” Chau said. “We know that when cases in LA rises, other counties follow — San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange County.”
Orange County’s COVID Landscape
While public health officials are trying to get a handle on monkeypox, they’re simultaneously dealing with the current COVID case surge.
Chau – who hasn’t really offered any public updates on COVID for months – said Thursday the wave could be cresting.
“It looks like the number has stabilized, if not trending down,” he said.
As of Tuesday, Orange County’s COVID positivity rate was 15.8% – down from nearly 20% last month – according to state data.
But, Chau said the positivity rate isn’t a true representation of the current situation because many residents are using at-home tests, which don’t get reported to public health officials.
He said up to 80% of the cases could be unreported due to at-home testing.
“That means the number reported using PCR is probably around a third and a quarter of the true cases out there,” Chau said.
He also noted hospitalizations have been falling.
“At one point we had about 350 people in the hospitals and about 40 in the ICUs and that number seems to be dropping a little bit,” Chau said.
As of Wednesday – the latest data available – 258 Orange County residents were hospitalized for COVID, including 36 in intensive care units, according to state data.
COVID has now killed 7,214 OC residents since the pandemic kicked off in March 2020, according to the OC Health Care Agency.
Meanwhile, Chau said he expects a rise in cases this fall when children return to school – pointing to low vaccination rates in kids.
“God forbid, another wave in the winter because we can’t predict whether or not we have another variant and whether or not the new variant is going to be more severe and more transmissible than others,” he said.
Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.