Monkeypox in Travis County has now reached the level of community spread, local public health officials said Wednesday.
Austin Public Health has confirmed six monkeypox cases, which means the positive cases also have been confirmed by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Austin Public Health also has identified seven presumptive cases, which means the person has tested positive, but the case hasn’t yet been confirmed by the CDC.
That tally is up from one confirmed case and five presumptive cases last week. The first presumptive case in Travis County was reported June 24. Texas now has 39 confirmed cases, and the United States has 929 as of Tuesday.
Austin Public Health will be providing updates on the monkeypox cases every Thursday.
What is community spread?
Community spread means that people have been infected with the virus without traveling to a high-risk area or being in contact with someone who has traveled to a high-risk area, said Dr. Manish Naik, an internal medicine doctor at Austin Regional Clinic.
Community spread with monkeypox “is not a reason to panic or raise a huge level of concern,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that it’s starting to spread in an airborne fashion.”
We should not ignore monkeypox, though, because there are things we can do.
“We need to be safe and follow practices we’ve learned from COVID-19 to prevent the spread of monkeypox here in our community,” said Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority. “Try to reduce close, intimate interactions with those whose health history you’re unaware of. Use hand sanitizer, and wear masks when in close quarters with others who have symptoms.”
Is this another COVID-19?
Monkeypox also won’t rise to the level of another pandemic, Naik said. Monkeypox is not spread through the air though respiratory droplets like COVID-19. It is also not as infectious.
“This virus is much more difficult to contract than a typical cold virus or COVID-19,” Naik said.
The monkeypox cases are coming at the same time Travis County remains in the “medium” level for COVID-19 and has watched COVID-19 cases rise in the past month. The transmission rate has been above 200 for the past two weeks, including 280.07 cases per 100,000 people last Thursday, the last time that number was updated by the CDC. There are now 143 people hospitalized with the coronavirus, 24 in intensive care units and four people on ventilators in the Austin area.
Bastrop, Hays, Williamson and Caldwell counties are also considered at the medium level for COVID-19 transmission.
Naik is much more concerned about COVID-19, than monkeypox. Recently, 30% to 35% of the COVID-19 tests Austin Regional Clinic are running have come back as positive, he said. People who suspect they have COVID-19 should get tested because there are medications they can take to lessen their symptoms and prevent a severe infection or hospitalization.
Who can get monkeypox?
Monkeypox can spread to anyone regardless of travel history and sexual orientation. It is no longer being seen in only people who have traveled. The CDC has seen more cases in men who have had sex with other men, but it is not isolated to that population.
Part of the challenge of monkeypox is that there is a lot we don’t yet know, including why certain populations have been more affected by it, Naik said. If an outbreak in a group of people has been identified, preemptive treatment such as vaccinations and education can be targeted for that group, Naik said.
“With all of these things, we learn more as time goes on,” he said.
Getting diagnosed is important, regardless of how a person thinks they might have gotten it.
“Stigma and blame undermine trust and ability to respond effectively during outbreaks like this one,” said Austin Public Health Director Adrienne Sturrup. “We know from experience that stigmatizing rhetoric can disable an evidence-based response with fear, driving people away from health services and impeding case investigations.”
Understanding monkeypoxMonkeypox has been spotted in Texas. Here’s what you need to know about this disease
How is monkeypox spread?
The disease spreads from person to person in these ways:
- Direct contact with the infectious rash, scabs or bodily fluids.
- Respiratory secretions with face-to-face contact during activities such as kissing, cuddling or having sex.
- Touching items such as clothing or linens that previously touched the infectious rash or body fluids.
- Pregnant people also can spread the virus to their fetus through the placenta.
What should we do to avoid monkeypox?
Austin Public Health recommends avoiding skin-to-skin contact with people, including strangers. Also avoid contact with other people’s saliva. The virus can be spread through contaminated clothing or bedding, by sharing or eating utensils or cups, sharing cigarettes or vaping devices, kissing and other activities in which saliva is exchanged.
Washing your hands regularly is also really important with a direct-contact disease such as monkeypox.
Monkeypox in AustinHealth officials checking into presumptive monkeypox case in Travis County
What are monkeypox’s symptoms?
Symptoms of monkeypox can include:
- Muscle aches and backache.
- Swollen lymph nodes.
- A rash that can look like pimples or blisters. It can be on the face, inside the mouth and on other parts of the body, like the hands/palms, feet, chest, genitals or anus.
The rash is key, Naik said. Doctors are being advised not to test for monkeypox unless a patient has the rash. The rash also can be confusing. Monkeypox looks like shingles. They have very different treatments, which makes it important to identify the cause of the rash.
Local spread:Monkeypox confirmed in Travis County
Are symptoms severe?
Most symptoms of monkeypox go away on their own within a few weeks. Infected newborns, small children and people with underlying immune deficiencies could be at risk for more severe symptoms and even death from monkeypox, according to the World Health Organization.
“For the most part, the disease is a self-limiting, painful or itchy rash. It’s very uncomfortable,” said Heather Cooks-Sinclair, Epidemiology and Disease Surveillance Unit manager for the health authority.
“At the health department, if we think someone is at high risk for hospitalization, we are in contact with the CDC to order anti-virals to give to that person and reduce the severity of that illness,” she said.
Texas has received 3,000 doses of the two-dose monkeypox vaccine to give those people who are most at risk. Those people include lab technicians and people who have been in close contact with someone with monkeypox.
What should I do if I might be infected?
Austin Public Health is requiring anyone who tests positive for monkeypox to stay home for 21 days to reduce the risk of contact and spread.
If you are in isolation, you should stay in a separate area of your home away from other people, wear a mask around people if you have to be in contact with them and avoid sharing bedding or towels.
Anyone with a rash that looks like monkeypox should talk to their health care provider, even if they don’t think they had contact with someone who has monkeypox, according to the CDC.
Statesman reporters Katy-Ann McDonald and Fiza Kuzhiyil contributed to this article.