Monkeypox is on the rise
With the number of monkeypox cases growing in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy this month announced expanded eligibility for the monkeypox vaccine.
Although there have been no reported cases of monkeypox in Montclair, as of July 25 there were 81 probable or confirmed cases in the state, almost double the number reported a week earlier.
The alarming growth might leave some Montclairians wondering what they should be on the lookout for.
“This outbreak is unusual in that it's now spreading amongst humans more regularly and kind of has hit many different countries,” said Dr. Ashish Parikh, chief quality officer at Summit Health. “Basically, it is spread by close skin-to-skin contact. For the most part, they do think that if you're in very close contact, or in the same room for a prolonged period of time, you possibly could catch it through an airborne mechanism, but not nearly as much as other viruses, like flu or COVID or anything like that.”
On July 23, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared the spread of monkeypox to be a public health emergency of international concern.
Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by infection with monkeypox virus, part of the orthopox family of viruses, that can affect anyone. The virus can cause symptoms similar to the flu, including swollen lymph nodes and a rash that often begins on the face and spreads to other parts of the body.
Parikh said monkeypox does not spread easily to people without close contact. Although many of the current cases have been found in individuals who self-identify as men who have sex with men, monkeypox can spread from direct contact with any infected individual to any other individual. It can also be spread by touching clothing, bedding, towels or surfaces that have been exposed to someone with the virus.
Before New Jersey expanded the eligibility for vaccinations, the vaccine was available to residents with known exposure to a monkeypox case. Now, the vaccine, referred to as JYNNEOS, will also be available to those who are at high risk of having been exposed to the virus in the past 14 days.
Although eligibility for vaccination has been expanded, the state had only 2,700 doses available as of the date of Murphy’s announcement, July 19.
“New Jersey has been given a very limited number of doses at this time, and the [state Health] Department continues to press the CDC on timely delivery of additional necessary doses to meet the needs of our at-risk populations,” Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said.
“At the same time, residents should be aware of the signs and symptoms of the orthopox virus and take precautions to prevent the spread.”
Any Montclair resident who has known exposure to a positive case should call the Montclair Township Department of Health and Human Services at 973-509-4970 and ask to speak with a public health nurse. The nurse will ask some questions to determine if the resident qualifies for a vaccine.
If the resident meets the qualifications, the vaccine will be administered at the Montclair Health Department. The nurse will also conduct contact tracing and offer the vaccine to anyone identified as a close contact.
The process differs if a resident has unknown/unconfirmed exposure. In that case, there are options.
If a resident notices a rash or seems to be suffering from symptoms related to monkeypox, Parikh and a local pediatric specialist from Summit Health, Dr. Alexa Kemeny, advise speaking with his/her primary doctor first.
Although there are a limited number of vaccines in the state, testing for monkeypox is widely available and can be done at the local level, said Maya Lordo, Essex County health officer.
“So, you can go ahead and, if you think you have it, you can go ahead and get tested,” Lordo said.
Another option that those with unconfirmed contact to a monkeypox case can take advantage of, especially those who are uninsured, is the community partnerships the state has made with care providers.
The state has partnered with North Jersey Community Research Initiative (NJCRI) of Newark (973-483-3444, ext. 200), Hyacinth AIDS Foundation/Project Living Out Loud! of Jersey City (201-706-3480) and The Prevention Resource Network, a program of the Visiting Nurse Association of Central Jersey of Asbury Park (732-502-5100).
Those with unconfirmed cases can schedule an appointment with one of those providers to discuss their specific circumstances.
Essex County is taking steps to inform communities, Lordo said. On Friday, July 22, the county and the Newark Department of Health held a medical provider health call on Zoom. There, medical professionals viewed a clinical presentation on monkeypox and heard from a spokesperson from the New Jersey Department of Health Communicable Disease Service about monkeypox testing and vaccination options.
Lordo also explained that Essex is working to inform the LGBTQ+ community, which is disproportionately affected by the virus, of important information on preventing infection and vaccination eligibility.
“The county does have an office of LGBTQ affairs, and we are going ahead and working with them to go ahead and spread awareness in regards to [monkeypox],” she said. “For example, there's a vaccine sheet that just came out from the New Jersey Department of Health, and we are making sure that that department has it and it's going to those proper channels.”
Although efforts are being made on some levels to share information on the rapid-spread of monkeypox, councilman Peter Yacobellis feels as though there should be more done in the form of education, contact tracing and additional testing.
"It feels to me that we wait until things become a crisis almost before we react to it," Yacobellis said. "It's almost like we wait to see if it's gonna go away versus being prepared for it to not go away. So to me, at this point, we should have contact tracing in place, we should have testing, we should have a much more aggressive public information/public awareness campaign, so people understand all the behaviors to avoid and ways that it spreads and all those sorts of things, and then there should be more vaccines available sooner."
Dr. Parikh, Dr. Kemeny and Health Officer Lordo agree that, unlike with the severity of COVID-19, residents should stay informed, but remain calm as officials work to understand and eliminate the virus.
“We were just getting off the heels of a pandemic, and then we have this,” Lordo said. “I think we all need to just take a minute. This is brand new. Let's see what comes with it.”