By Donald Gilpin
The first confirmed case of monkeypox in New Jersey was reported on June 18, and since then the Princeton Health Department has received more than 300 calls and emails, and has responded to residents’ concerns about how the virus is spread, reviewed possible exposures to identify risk, and answered questions about vaccination sites and eligibility.
As of Tuesday, August 9, the New Jersey Department of Health had reported 264 confirmed cases of monkeypox in the state, mostly in northern counties. There were just seven cases in Mercer County.
Last Thursday, the White House declared the outbreak a national health emergency, following the World Health Organization’s declaration in July of monkeypox as a global health emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 8,934 cases in the United States as of Monday, August 8, with New York reporting the highest total at 1,960 cases. The U.S. has the highest number of monkeypox infections in the world.
“Although the risk of monkeypox in Princeton is thought to be low, we are continuing to urge everyone to be knowledgeable about the disease and how it is spread,” wrote Princeton Deputy Administrator for Health and Human Services Jeff Grosser in an August 9 email. When asked whether any cases have been reported in Princeton, Grosser stated that, due to the limited number of cases, municipalities do not report case numbers out of concern for protecting individuals’ health and private health information.
“Monkeypox spreads in different ways,” Grosser wrote. “It can spread from person to person through direct contact with rash, scabs, or bodily fluids. It can also spread by face-to-face contact through respiratory droplets, or during close contact such as kissing, cuddling, or sex.”
Grosser went on to point out that scabs are much less infectious than respiratory secretions, and that monkeypox can also be spread through items like clothes, towels, and bed linens that have been in contact with the rash or bodily fluids. The CDC states that monkeypox does not spread easily to people without close contact.
The monkeypox virus can cause flu-like symptoms, swollen lymph nodes, and a rash that often begins on the face and spreads to other parts of the body. Monkeypox is rarely fatal — no deaths have been reported in the United States — but it can be very painful, according to the New York Times.
“Local health departments are currently tasked with case investigations into suspected or confirmed monkeypox cases,” Grosser wrote. Health departments are also responsible for vaccinating confirmed contacts, individuals who have been exposed to a confirmed case of monkeypox. Grosser reported that Public Health Nurse Kathy Korwin has been working with nearby health care providers to ensure they have up-to-date information on proper procedures when evaluating suspected or confirmed monkeypox cases.
The Princeton municipal newsletter has announced that there is now expanded eligibility for the monkeypox vaccine, which is available to high-risk New Jerseyans and those who think they may have been exposed to the virus. Information on vaccine appointments is available on the New Jersey Department of Health website at nj.gov/health.
Grosser noted, “In the current outbreak, data suggests that some groups may be at increased risk and should use increased caution. This includes gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men.”
A recent New York Times article reported that “more than 99 percent of people infected with the monkeypox in this country are men who have sex with men, which has posed a delicate task for public health officials communicating with the public about the threat. They do not want to stigmatize gay people as happened in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but neither do they want to downplay their particular risk.”
Grosser warned that “although certain subgroups may be at greater risk, no group is completely risk free of any disease.”
Health officials note that anyone who has had confirmed contact with monkeypox should contact the Princeton Health Department by emailing the health officer (email@example.com) and the public health nurse (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Meanwhile, though the country officially remains in a state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety levels, along with mask-wearing and other precautionary measures, seem to be diminishing, approaching a level of normalcy, or at least a “new normal.”
Case numbers are declining, or at least leveling off, and the New Jersey transmission rate continues to drop, at a rate at 0.92 on August 9, with any number below 1 indicating a waning outbreak with each new case leading to less than one additional case.
Mercer County is in the “medium risk” category, though fourteen of New Jersey’s 21 counties are designated by the CDC as “high risk.”
“Heading into the fall, the best thing to remember is previous guidance like staying home when sick, keeping up on COVID-19 vaccinations/boosters, and washing your hands or using hand sanitizer frequently to continue to reduce serious risks of infection,” said Grosser.
Health officials continue to monitor COVID-19 variants and will adjust public health precautions accordingly, he noted, adding that, since vaccination and booster rates in Princeton are high, gatherings, even if most people do not wear masks, are usually safe. “Those who may be at higher risk for COVID-19 may consider wearing masks for additional protection when around large groups,” he said.