AUSTIN (KXAN) — The number of monkeypox cases confirmed in Texas climbed to 20, according to the latest data shared by the federal government.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported eight new cases in the state Wednesday on its map tracking infections nationwide. Only one case has been confirmed in Travis County so far, but Austin Public Health shared Tuesday that five others potentially have monkeypox, too.
The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) reported that monkeypox symptoms usually begin with a fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills and exhaustion. A rash that looks like pimples or blisters may appear soon after those initial symptoms. The rash typically appears first on someone’s face and spread to other body parts, according to DSHS. Lesions start forming at the same time, too, and they’ll progress from small red bumps to larger pus-filled bumps to scabs before falling off.
How monkeypox spreads
According to DSHS, the monkeypox virus can spread when a person comes into close contact with an infected animal, person or contaminated materials, like bedding or linens. Dr. Jennifer Shuford, the chief state epidemiologist at DSHS, said the current outbreak of this virus is passed around differently than COVID-19, which may explain why case counts remain low.
“We know that there there’s a small possibility that it can be spread through droplets, so little bits of respiratory secretions that come out of your mouth when you talk or sneeze or cough,” Shuford said. “But most of what’s driving the current outbreak is close skin-to-skin contact. Anytime somebody has those monkeypox lesions on their skin, they can spread it to somebody else through that really close skin-to-skin contact.”
She said there’s something else that makes monkeypox different from COVID-19.
“For a lot of times, people were spreading [COVID-19] before they even had any symptoms. They didn’t know that they needed to protect other people because they didn’t have symptoms of the disease,” Shuford said. “But with monkeypox, what we’re seeing is that people are spreading it once they have symptoms —that’s when it appears to be infectious.
“People should be aware of their own bodies: if they are developing skin bumps, or those other symptoms, like fever and lymph node swelling and headaches,” she added. “If you’re having those symptoms, just reach out to your health care provider and let them know and they can help navigate, like, is this something that could be monkeypox, or is this some other disease that could be circulating right now?”
Monkeypox vaccine availability in Texas
The White House recently announced the intent of sending out tens of thousands of vaccine doses immediately as the nation tries to head off a growing monkeypox outbreak. The administration plans to allocate 296,000 doses of the Jynneos vaccine over the coming weeks, which is the only Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccine specifically for monkeypox.
Of those, 56,000 doses that are in the Strategic National Stockpile will be allocated immediately. Over the coming months, a combined 1.6 million additional doses will become available, the White House said.
Shuford confirmed Texas has some vaccine doses still being held at the Strategic National Stockpile right now, but she said the shots have been easy to order and usually arrive in about 30 hours. She said several local health departments and other providers have administered the vaccine to Texans already. However, these shots are not widely available to anyone who wants them.
Shuford said the vaccine is authorized for those who have had a known exposure either through close contact or in a setting where monkeypox had been known to spread.
“There’s really specific populations right now that we’re trying to get that vaccine into,” Shuford said, “but we also know in conversations with CDC and with the company who’s manufacturing the vaccine that they’re really ramping up that vaccine production so that we can use it a little more widely and make sure that the people who are most at risk can get that vaccine.”
Testing availability in Texas
Tests are used to confirm a monkeypox diagnosis, and right now Shuford said public health laboratories throughout Texas are handling the swabs sent to them.
The Biden administration also announced Wednesday that Labcorp, one of the largest commercial laboratory testing networks in the U.S., will begin testing for monkeypox. Shuford said getting more commercial labs involved will help more people receive tests, but she said Texas has not come close to exceeding its capacity for testing for monkeypox.
“We’re still in a good position for testing the number of people that we need to in Texas at this point in time,” she said, “but having that extra capacity will allow us just a little bit of wiggle room in case we do start to see some bigger outbreaks in Texas that will have all of the lab capacity that we need to get people tested.”
Fighting LGBTQ stigma
The CDC initially warned that the earliest monkeypox cases in the U.S. mostly appeared in gay, bisexual or men who have sexual relationships with other men.
Shuford said that might be the case for some of the infections in Texas, too. However, she and other medical experts point out monkeypox is a communicable disease that can affect anyone — regardless of their sexual orientation.
“The group that’s most at risk right now might not be the same one that’s at risk in a week or a month,” she said. “We expect that this is going to be transmitted through different populations — and anybody that has close contact with somebody else, including household contacts. While we are a little a bit afraid about the stigmatization [of the LGBTQ+ community], there’s not really a place for it because, really, we’re all susceptible, and that close contact that happens between individuals is enough to spread it.”