The Biden administration declared monkeypox a public health crisis on Aug. 4, following the same declaration from the World Health Organization a week prior.
As of the town hall, there were nine confirmed cases in Travis County, 46 presumptive cases and more than 250 people being monitored as close contacts, according to Austin Public Health.
Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said the county has 60 pending tests and has typically seen around 80% of all tests come back positive. She said there is a delay in testing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention due to the number of cases nationally.
Walkes said individuals have to have a rash to be tested for monkeypox. That rash is swabbed and the sample is sent to the CDC.
Monkeypox is typically not fatal and spreads through prolonged skin-to-skin contact, according to Walkes. Individuals who are pregnant, under age 8 or have weakened immune systems may be hit harder by the disease. Locally, the only individuals who had to seek hospitalization for monkeypox did so because of extreme pain.
Monkeypox spreads through bodily fluid, including respiratory droplets, and can remain on surfaces. However, Vivent Health Director Dr. Aliza Norwood said more than 99% of local cases have been due to prolonged skin-to-skin contact, typically sexual contact. She said the risk of contracting monkeypox while speaking to someone or touching a public surface is extremely low.
Dr. Michael Stefanowicz, CommUnityCare associate director of sexual health programs, said it is important to understand what community is hit hardest with the virus without creating a sigma around the virus.
“Anyone can develop monkeypox, but the virus is most impacting gay and bisexual men right now,” Stefanowicz said.
Stefanowicz said individuals should take precautions, such as talking with partners about any potential concerns around the virus. He also encouraged people who are worried about contracting the virus to reach out to a primary care provider to discuss the condition.
Walkes said vaccines are being distributed by the federal government, but the supply is limited.
Austin Public Health requested 5,000 doses recently and received 3,000, she said. Each individual needs two doses, meaning APH received supplies for 1,500 individuals. Walkes said the vaccines are being reserved for individuals who have been exposed and are at high risk.
Ahead of children returning to school, the experts on the panel said parents should stay informed and watch out for signs their children are sick, but they should understand that risks are low. Walkes said only two of Texas’ cases have been children.
When a person is sick, it is recommended that they quarantine, Walkes said. That includes trying not to interact with pets or other family members and using a separate bathroom and kitchen area when possible or cleaning shared spaces thoroughly.
In response to questions about the feasibility for some individuals to stay home to isolate and the need for financial support for those who do, panelists encouraged community members to advocate for those needs. Walkes said the Biden administration's declaration might pave the way for federal funds that could be used to support patients.
Walkes said monkeypox may be at the pandemic level globally.
“[Officials] haven't called it that yet, but it is all over the world impacting communities and countries,” Walkes said