Pinellas grapples with monkeypox outbreak; fifth case reported

Contract tracing is underway to find and vaccinate those who came into contact with the infected.
Samples are tested June 6 for the monkeypox virus at a microbiology laboratory in La Paz Hospital in Madrid, Spain.
Samples are tested June 6 for the monkeypox virus at a microbiology laboratory in La Paz Hospital in Madrid, Spain. [ PABLO BLAZQUEZ DOMINGUEZ | Getty Images North America ]
Published July 7, 2022|Updated July 7, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — Health officials are trying to contain the spread of monkeypox in Pinellas County after a fifth case of the viral disease was confirmed Wednesday.

The five infected people are isolating, said Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. An epidemiology team is conducting contract tracing to identify others who may be at risk after close contact with those infected.

Monkeypox is considered a mild, viral disease similar to smallpox. But it can cause serious or even deadly health complications in immunocompromised people, pregnant women, newborns, women who are breastfeeding, young children and people with severe skin diseases such as eczema.

Symptoms of monkeypox include fevers and chills, swollen lymph nodes, rash, and headaches. It can take up to 21 days after exposure for them to develop.

Related: Here’s the latest on the monkeypox outbreak

The first Pinellas infection was diagnosed on June 24, officials said. The numbers in Pinellas are still low compared to Florida hotspots like Broward County, where 40 out of the state’s current 73 cases were diagnosed. No cases have been recorded in Hillsborough or Pasco counties. Two have been confirmed in Polk County.

Choe said Thursday that he could not discuss individual patients in Pinellas or whether the cases are linked, but said the majority of cases across Florida and the nation involve men who have sex with other men.

The virus can be transmitted through direct contact with an infected person’s rash, scabs or body fluids through intercourse, kissing, massage and any other kind of skin-to-skin contact.

It can also be spread to humans from infected animals if someone is scratched or bitten by the animal, or prepares the infected animal for a meal, or consumes it.

In the current global outbreak, monkeypox has been primarily transmitted via sexual contact, although it’s still undetermined whether if it can be spread through semen or vaginal fluids.

“The majority of what we’ve seen is close contact,” Choe said. “I don’t want the public to think you can get it casually.”

Still, Choe said the public should be cautious around an infected person. Sores and pustules can be contagious. Do not handle towels or share bedding with anyone who is infected and wash your hands frequently, he said.

Related: Broward County may have Florida’s first case of monkeypox

People believed to be at high-risk of infection after coming into contact with the five Pinellas patients were given a vaccine, Choe said. The Food and Drug Administration has licensed two vaccines for the virus, JYNNEOS (also known as Imvamune or Imvanex) and ACAM2000. The vaccines, both of which are also used against smallpox, are available to local health departments from the Strategic National Stockpile.

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The Department of Health and Human Services announced last month that it expects to make 750,000 doses available over the summer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccination for those at high risk following a confirmed monkeypox exposure. That could include people who had sexual relations within 14 days with someone diagnosed with monkeypox or someone who had multiple sexual partners in the past 14 days in an area experiencing a monkeypox outbreak.

There is no data on the effectiveness of these shots against the current outbreak. But CDC experts believe it is effective at protecting people prior to exposure and may prevent or lessens symptoms if given after an exposure.

Anti-viral medications are also available, Choe said. He urged anyone with a rash or other symptoms to immediately seek medical help.

“Fortunately the cases in Florida and in the U.S. have been mild,” he said. “There here have been no reported deaths.”

Related: Monkeypox spreads in Europe, US, baffling African scientists

More than 7,200 cases have been confirmed across the world, according to the CDC, and more than 600 have been found in the U.S. An emergency committee of the World Health Organization will convene next week to consider whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern. The designation would make it easier for countries to work together to curb the spread of the disease.

Monkeypox was discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research, according to the CDC. It is endemic in parts of west and central Africa and is believed to be more often spread through bites from rodents, not monkeys, as its name would suggest.

Before the current outbreak, U.S. cases were extremely rare and were associated with travel or importation of infected animals. A 2003 outbreak in six states including Illinois and Kansas was linked to prairie dogs that were sold as pets after being in close contact to a shipment of small mammals including African giant pouched rats, brush-tailed porcupines and dormice. It led to the infection of 47 people.