Monkeypox in Colorado: How to get tested and vaccinated in Denver

Colorado had recorded 79 confirmed monkeypox cases — with 55 of those reported in Denver — as of Thursday, when federal health officials declared the virus a public health emergency as its spread shows no sign of slowing.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found only a handful of monkeypox cases in May and June, followed by 66 infections in July as more labs offered testing. It’s not clear if the concentration of cases in Denver reflects who’s infected, or who’s getting tested.

The supply of the monkeypox vaccine remains limited in Colorado, and it’s not available to everyone. Gov. Jared Polis said Thursday that the state has 30 providers signed up to offer vaccines, once there are more doses to give out.

“We administer or distribute the extremely limited supply of vaccines that the federal government provides us as soon as we receive them. We will continue to advocate for more vaccines and are pleased to hear more are on the way,” he said in a news release.

Nationwide, more than 6,600 people have contracted monkeypox.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said it’s difficult to know if case counts are increasing faster because more people are getting tested, or if the spread is truly accelerating.

“We are really encouraging anyone who has symptoms of what could be monkeypox to present for testing,” she said.

Here are answers to common questions about monkeypox, testing and vaccines:

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a viral cousin of smallpox, though, thankfully, it’s not nearly as deadly. It’s established in animals in parts of Africa, and periodically spills over into people. (Scientists named it monkeypox because they happened to find it in primates used for research, but now believe rodents are its natural host.)

Early symptoms can include fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes and exhaustion, though some people only experience the rash.

In previous outbreaks, the rash tended to start on the face, but this time, more people are seeing it in the genital or anal region. The bumps can resemble acne or common sexually transmitted infections, so if you notice any new rash, get it checked out.

It’s unlikely to result in hospitalization or death, but can be quite painful, according to people who’ve recovered from it.

How does monkeypox spread?

Skin-to-skin contact is the primary transmission method, and in this outbreak, most of that contact has been sexual. It’s also possible for people to get the virus by touching items that are rubbed against a person’s body (like towels or bed sheets). It’s not yet clear if the virus spreads through semen or vaginal secretions.

Scientists aren’t entirely sure how well the virus can spread through saliva, but interactions that don’t involve close contact appear to be low-risk.

Can I get vaccinated?

Colorado has a limited supply of vaccine doses available for people 18 and older who know they were exposed to monkeypox, and for adult men who had multiple male sexual partners or an anonymous partner in the last two weeks.

More than 90% of cases in the U.S. have been found in gay and bisexual men after the virus got a foothold in that community, though a small number of people who lived platonically in the same household as an infected person have gotten the virus.

Since there’s nothing inherently linking the virus with sex between men, public health officials are worried it could move into groups that are at a higher risk of severe illness, such as pregnant women.

People who qualify for the vaccine can fill out a form requesting an appointment on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s website. The state’s clinics through Aug. 13 already are full, though.

The Tri-County Health Department will offer some vaccines on a walk-in basis this week, but described the supply as “extremely limited.” The shots will be available, if supplies last, from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Friday at the department’s clinics in Castle Rock and Westminster, and from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pride event at the Aurora reservoir.

The state has received 9,665 doses of the monkeypox vaccine from the federal government, Polis’s office said Thursday.

If you think you’ve been exposed to monkeypox, it’s a good idea to get the vaccine as quickly as possible, to reduce the odds of becoming ill or lessen the severity of symptoms.

The state is temporarily holding off on administering second doses to get first shots to as many people as possible.

Dr. Robert Califf, the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said the agency is considering directing health care providers to give the vaccine directly under the skin, which would give the recipients the same protection with a smaller dose.

How else can I protect myself?

Since the virus spreads through skin-to-skin contact, condoms may not be effective (though they can be worthwhile to avoid other infections). If a potential partner has monkeypox, it’s safest to wait until their lesions are completely healed before having close contact.

The World Health Organization has recommended that men in high-risk groups temporarily limit their sexual partners and make sure to exchange contact information, in case someone becomes infected. The CDC hasn’t offered the same advice, and there’s a debate within the public health community about whether emphasizing sexual behavior could backfire by creating a stigma around the disease.

How can I get tested for monkeypox in Colorado?

The easiest thing is to call your normal health care provider. If you don’t have one and notice a new rash, you can schedule testing at:

  • Denver Sexual Health Clinic
  • Gunnison County Public Health
  • Jefferson County Public Health Sexual and Reproductive Health Clinic
  • Mesa County Public Health
  • Weld County Public Health

It’s best to call ahead, since some clinics are only testing people who know they were exposed, or who are deemed high-risk.

Testing involves swabbing the lesions, so while it’s still worthwhile to call a doctor after an exposure to see if you can be vaccinated, you can’t find out if you’re infected until you have symptoms.

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