TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida has nearly doubled its count of people infected by the monkeypox virus in the past week, prompting state health officials to stretch vaccine supplies by only administering the first of two shots.
The Florida Department of Health counted 985 people infected by the monkeypox virus as of Tuesday, marking a jump from the 525 infections reported by Surgeon General Joseph A. Ladapo one week ago. The agency also ordered the full 72,000 vaccine doses allocated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which will be delivered in installments through October.
The HHS allocation is not enough to keep up with the outbreak of monkeypox, which is usually spread through human contact and primarily affects men who have sex with men. So the state Department of Health alerted county health offices to reschedule appointments for thousands of people who had planned to receive a second dose.
DOH spokesman Jeremy Redfern said although the virus is considered low risk for the general public, agency officials expect more people to get sick.
“That being said, due to the lack of monkeypox vaccines from the federal government, we are expecting infections to increase,” Redfern said in an email. “Monkeypox is proving to be extremely painful for those infected, but the fatality rate remains at zero in the US.”
The nationwide increase in monkeypox infections prompted President Joe Biden to declare a public health emergency last week. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show New York is leading the nation with 1,960 infections as of Sunday, followed by California with 1,310 cases. The governors of those states each signed an emergency declaration as cases went up, but the Florida Department of Health has no plans to ask DeSantis to declare an emergency.
“We work with providers, hospitals, and clinics to ensure they are able to properly diagnose a case of monkeypox and report the case to their county health department for further testing,” Redfern wrote.
An emergency declaration allows the state’s government to coordinate with agencies, impose special restrictions and sign contracts outside of state procurement laws.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Ladapo have downplayed the impact of the monkeypox virus, with DeSantis saying last week — when Florida was fifth in the nation for infections — that politicians and the news media are using the virus to scare people.
Two Democrats vying to unseat the incumbent Republican also demanded that DeSantis take more action. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said after a Tuesday campaign-related news conference in the parking lot of the governor’s mansion that her office has called on HHS to provide the state with more vaccines. She also urged the DeSantis administration to take the impact of the virus more seriously.
Fried said she recognizes that emergency declaration powers may not be necessary for monkeypox when compared to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, but outreach efforts are key at preventing the virus from spreading, usually through direct human contact.
“It’s more so that we can say that this is serious, that we’ve got an issue here, and that we are starting to work with our local governments to provide the resources of vaccines and testing,” Fried said. “The whole thing about monkeypox is knowledge is power.”
Fried will face Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) in the Aug. 23 primary, and the winner of that race will face off against DeSantis in November. Crist said during a Tuesday interview that DeSantis should be looking for ways to receive more vaccines from HHS rather than just downplaying the issue. With awareness playing such a crucial role in preventing spread, DeSantis should be pulling more levers that he has at his disposal in the event of a problem.
“We know that testing is difficult, and the cases are probably more than we will ever know,” Crist said during a phone interview. “The thing to do here is be engaged, and the governor’s just not engaged here.”
Fried and Crist have also called on the Biden administration to acquire more vaccine doses. The U.S. endured a shortage of the Jynneos vaccine used to treat monkeypox after the first infections were reported in May.
By declaring a national emergency, Biden has started a process the federal government has to follow before it changes a vaccine-use authorization. In Florida, Redfern said the state can direct counties to conserve shots without a declaration, and that the state’s actions were to accommodate for delays in vaccine distribution by the federal government.
“A state of emergency can’t do much to speed up something that is physically unavailable,” Redfern said.
One LGBTQ coalition is already planning its own outreach efforts to alert high-risk Floridians. National Black Justice Coalition Deputy Director Victoria Kirby York said Florida officials have failed to account for the state’s status as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, with millions of visitors hitting the beach every summer. She said previous governors, from Crist to Jeb Bush, showed compassion for human beings.
“Governor DeSantis has done nothing but show that every decision he’s making is about a presidential run,” Kirby York said. “It has little or nothing to do with the well-being of the people of Florida.”
The National Black Justice Coalition was one the groups picked by drugmaker Gilead Sciences on Tuesday to receive part of a $5 million grant meant to help promote awareness about monkeypox. Kirby York’s organization refers to the monkeypox virus as MPV due to its racial undertone.
“If we want to stop this, we need to change the trajectory, and start getting into those communities and letting people know,” she said. “You’d think we’d know by now that viruses always start in a community.”