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State health commissioner on monkeypox: 'It's spreading rapidly'

State Health Commissioner Mary Bassett and Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Gov. Kathy Hochul's office
State Health Commissioner Mary Bassett and Gov. Kathy Hochul.

New York state’s health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, said Tuesday that monkeypox continues to spread, and people should be aware of the risk and how to access the limited supply of vaccines.

Bassett said the World Health Organization has already declared the disease a global health emergency by, and her health department has declared the disease an imminent threat to public health. Late last Friday, Gov. Kathy Hochul declared monkeypox a state disaster emergency.

“It’s spreading rapidly, it’s spreading globally, it’s spreading in ways that we haven’t seen before for this particular virus,” Bassett said.

Bassett said the governor’s order enables the state to take more steps to respond. They include allowing a larger category of health care professionals to administer monkeypox vaccines, including EMS personnel, pharmacists and midwives.

The order also makes it easier for doctors and nurse practitioners to issue orders for patients to receive the vaccines. It will help the state health department better track the spread of the virus, by requiring providers share vaccine data.

Monkeypox, compared to COVID-19, is less contagious and is not an airborne virus. It spreads mainly through skin-to-skin contact.

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“It’s nothing like COVID,” said Bassett, who added the state is recording 4,000 to 5,000 cases of COVID-19 a day, while there have been just over 1,500 total cases of monkeypox in the state so far.

Monkeypox usually does not cause serious illness, though the lesions associated with the virus are painful. It can, in a small number of cases, result in hospitalization or death.

Currently, transmission is more prevalent among men who have sexual relations with men. Bassett, who began her career during the AIDS epidemic, said she wants to get the word out to keep safe those who are currently most vulnerable to the disease, without stigmatizing any particular community.

“We both have to sound the alarm, and we have to make it clear that this is not something that spreads because people are gay,” she said. “It can affect anyone.”

The state of New York is not holding any vaccine clinics. For now, it’s being left up to individual counties, as well as New York City, to offer them. The supply is limited to counties where there are confirmed cases, which include Suffolk, Westchester, Nassau, Saratoga, Rockland and Sullivan counties.

“We are targeting our distribution,” Bassett said. “But the bottom line is that we need more vaccines.”

A check of the vaccine appointment websites for those counties listed August dates for vaccine clinics. All but Westchester County said that no more appointments are available for first doses. Westchester was offering multiple appointments on Aug. 8 between 10:20 a.m. and 5:20 p.m. The full vaccine requires two doses given four weeks apart.

Last Thursday, Hochul said the federal government would provide an additional 110,000 vaccine doses, on top of the 60,000 already distributed.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.