The spread of another viral disease in the United States during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is cause for concern, but Berkeley Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez says the city is better equipped to handle the monkeypox outbreak than the early stages of coronavirus.
Monkeypox is a viral skin disease spread primarily through prolonged, direct skin-to-skin contact. It results in a rash and some flu-like symptoms, like fever and headache, and typically takes two to four weeks to clear without medication.
There were eight cases in Berkeley as of Thursday, according to Hernandez and the public state database, which is updated with data from local health departments. Alameda County currently has 50 cases, and there are about 800 cases statewide of about 4,600 nationwide.
The cases on the state database reflect probable and confirmed cases of monkeypox, but there may be additional cases in individuals who have not yet received positive results but are showing symptoms.
State health officials say the risk of contracting monkeypox in the general public, separate from some high-risk groups, is currently very low.
Here are answers to some common questions about monkeypox, how it spreads and how to stay safe.
How is monkeypox spread?
Monkeypox is spread most often through direct, prolonged skin-to-skin contact. It is not a sexually-transmitted infection, but Hernandez said sexual intercourse is currently the most common mode of spread, followed by persons within the same household sharing bedding or coming into contact with soiled clothing.
Hernandez said monkeypox is spread through materials by sharing clothes and fabrics in a household with an infection, rather than in places like an office space or transit.
“It has to be direct contact — it’s not like just brushing someone on BART; that’s not what I would be worried about,” Hernandez said. “It’s not something that you can spread casually.”
It is also possible to spread the skin disease through respiratory droplets, but Hernandez said this type of spread must be prolonged and direct. The state says this spread can happen in someone caring for a person with monkeypox, for example.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported two cases of monkeypox in children last week, and Hernandez said it likely happened in a household where the children had prolonged skin-to-skin contact with family members who had monkeypox.
Are monkeypox vaccines available in Berkeley?
The rollout of the vaccines is currently limited to target groups identified by the CDC. Hernandez said the people currently impacted by the virus and considered “high-risk” are men and trans people who have sex with men. People exposed to monkeypox are also eligible for the vaccine.
The city has partnered with Steamworks Berkeley to distribute the vaccine, and Hernandez said the vaccine supply, as well as treatment, is coming from the federal government’s strategic national stockpile. The federal government provides allotments to every state weekly, which then distributes them to local health departments like Berkeley.
She said that means the supply is extremely limited, though it is expected to increase with the Biden administration expected to declare monkeypox a national public health emergency.
About 170 doses are expected to arrive in Berkeley next week, according to Hernandez. Berkeley initially received 270 doses at the beginning of the outbreak, but the supply quickly dwindled with high demand.
“Our strategy is basically based on the supply. We hope to broaden the scope of our vaccinations and vaccination clinics, but we’re still planning that,” Hernandez said.
How can I stay safe during the monkeypox outbreak?
To keep yourself and others safe, get tested if you think you have monkeypox. Photos of the rash-like skin symptoms are available on the city website.
Hernandez said testing is available at many commercial locations and primary care providers, in addition to specialized health clinics, and there’s no state-level bottleneck like initial COVID-19 testing systems, so results should be ready much faster.
“I think it’s a positive sign that we’re seeing the capacity for testing expand,” Hernandez said. “It has expanded faster than we saw for COVID-19, so that ability is going to help people be aware that they have monkeypox [and prevent spread].”
The incubation period for monkeypox is between 5-21 days, with cases most commonly identified after about a week, so people who think they have been exposed should be monitoring their symptoms for several weeks, Hernandez said.
Medication is part of the national stockpile and is not necessary to treat monkeypox, according to the CDC. Hernandez said medicine is currently reserved for people with severe cases or cases at risk of becoming very serious, and most will resolve on their own in two-to-four weeks based on the person.
More information about safety procedures if you contract monkeypox is available online from the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the CDC. Patients are advised to talk with their healthcare providers.
As always, Hernandez said it’s good practice to engage in common health and safety habits, like washing your hands often with soap and water, or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.