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Monkeypox vaccines in short supply, Pima health officials warn, but more than 600 vaxxed
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Monkeypox vaccines in short supply, Pima health officials warn, but more than 600 vaxxed

Health Dep't expects another 900 doses in August

  • Dr. Theresa Cullen speaks at virtual press conference on Monday.
    screenshotDr. Theresa Cullen speaks at virtual press conference on Monday.

More than 600 Pima County residents have been vaccinated for monkeypox since early last month, though “the risk to the general population remains very small,” local health officials said Monday. Another 900 doses of the vaccine are expected to arrive by the end of the month.

Pima County has reported six cases of monkeypox and “a few” possible cases were under investigation as of Friday, Dr. Theresa Cullen, the director of the Pima County Health Department, told reporters on Monday.

Monkeypox cases in Pima County are expected to increase, Cullen told TucsonSentinel.com last week, as the rest of Arizona is experiencing a high level of community spread of the skin-to-skin virus, which causes lesions, rashes and cold-like symptoms. Deaths from the virus are rare.

The number of cases here is small right now, Cullen said, but another concern is that the supply of vaccines is “inadequate for what we’re seeing not only with the number of cases, but the subsequent risk for individuals” who have been exposed to the virus.

The first case in Pima County was announced on June 12, a few days before the first 100 doses of vaccines arrived. The county has since received about 900 doses and has administered about 630 of them to residents.

Almost 400 people were vaccinated on Saturday, Cullen said, at a clinic at the Abrams Public Health Center.

Eligibility

Because of the short supply, eligibility for the vaccine is limited to people who have already come into contact with a confirmed case of the virus. Priority is given to people with “high risk,” a determination made by Pima County epidemiologists, she said. Anyone who’s had contact with the virus or who has symptoms must fill out an interest form in order to be vaccinated.

Monkeypox spreads through skin-to-skin contact with “people who have multiple intimate partners” most at risk, Cullen said. “Men who have sex with men” are considered at higher risk for the virus, Cullen said previously.

People seeking to be tested for monkeypox should talk to their healthcare provider about submitting a test to a commercial lab. No county-operated testing sites are currently available for the virus.

Using contact tracing, the county will find people who they want to be tested. Those tests are submitted to the state lab. Confirmed cases at either state or commercial labs are followed up with a case investigation by the county.

Anyone who may have been exposed to monkeypox or who’s feeling symptoms should “limit their exposure to other people” and isolate, Cullen said. Lesions or pox can show after 14 days, but for others it takes longer, she said.

Kids returning to school, such as the 47,000 pupils at Tucson Unified School District who started class on Thursday, are at “very small risk” of monkeypox, Cullen said. At greater risk are the thousands of students on the University of Arizona campus, especially in dorms, she said.

Supply shortage

The 600-plus vaccinated county residents were given notices of their eligibility before being vaccinated, Cullen said. Most were identified through the interest form while some were found through contact tracing.

A second shot is needed about 28 days after the first to complete the series, Cullen said, and some of the earliest people vaccinated in the county are reaching that mark this week.

However, only one shot of the vaccine will be given to eligible individuals if the county has accelerated transmission, Cullen said, adding that “the first vaccine gives significant response and protection, many people believe up to 85 or 90 percent, from the disease."

“Many places in the country are electing to give first vaccines so they can push out the most vaccines they can,” Cullen said. “It makes sense, if we have accelerated transmission, to give one shot, knowing we do need to give another.”

The second shot will be given “when the vaccine becomes more available,” Cullen said. “Pima County, meaning me, is thinking closely about following that scenario.”

Shots are in short supply because U.S. health officials didn’t anticipate the increase in monkeypox cases, she said.

However, two tranches of monkeypox vaccines are expected to arrive in Pima County in August. The first is expected for August 15 while the second will come around the end of the month, Cullen said. Each tranche will have 460 doses of the vaccine. With 200 doses still remaining that will bring the supply up to more than 1,100 doses.

The federal government purchased 800,000 doses of the vaccine, made by the European company JYNNEOS, which were then distributed to states.

A total of 1,500 doses were allocated to Pima County out of the statewide supply. Another 800,000 doses is expected to be sent to the states in the fall, Cullen said. The county should receive another 1,500 doses from that distribution, though not all at once.

A public health emergency

Arizona has 102 reported cases as of Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The first monkeypox case in Arizona was reported in Maricopa County on June 7. The state now has the 14th most monkeypox cases in the U.S.

Arizona distributes the vaccines by region — Northern, Central and Southern. Pima County is the distribution center for the Southern region, which includes Yuma, Cochise, Graham, Greenlee and Santa Cruz counties.

Maricopa County is the distribution center for the Central region while Coconino County oversees distribution for the Northern region.

The first monkeypox case in the U.S. was identified in mid-May. As of Friday, the CDC had reported a total of 7,510 cases nationwide. The virus was declared a public health emergency in the U.S. by the Department of Health and Human services on Thursday.

In late July, the World Health Organization named monkeypox a “public health emergency of international concern,” their highest-level warning, which was also issued for COVID and Ebola. Although cases of the virus have been confirmed in over 70 countries, after spreading primarily in Europe for most of the 2022 outbreak, the highest count is now in the U.S.

Pima County is hosting a webinar on monkeypox and the vaccine on Wednesday at 6 p.m. Registration for the webinar is open to the public. More information about monkeypox is available on the county website.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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