Dozens of mostly urban communities are at risk of another mpox outbreak this summer, including Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, according to a new analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hillsborough has a 52% risk of an outbreak of the virus this year while the report puts the risk in Pinellas at 48%.
Those numbers were calculated using data modeling and factor in low immunity rates among the county’s at-risk populations. The 2022 outbreak of the disease, formerly known as monkeypox, disproportionately affected gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.
Only 15% of Hillsborough’s at-risk population has immunity either through vaccination or previous infection, the report found. The immunity rate in Pinellas is estimated at 20%.
Five other Florida counties are named in the study that calculated risks for 50 communities nationwide. Duval County, home of Jacksonville, leads the nation with a 57% risk of an outbreak, the study reported.
The warning comes as Chicago has already reported an uptick in cases and the CDC on May 15 issued a health alert about ongoing transmission in the Illinois city.
The CDC study recommends communities promote vaccines and other preventative measures ahead of pride-related events.
Brian Bailey, chief marketing officer at Metro Inclusive Health, said the spread of the virus in Chicago had already put the health nonprofit on alert. It is planning an outreach effort to encourage more people to get vaccinated ahead of the St. Pete Pride event on June 24. The vaccine for mpox requires two doses with 20 days between each.
“With Pride coming up with folks elbow to elbow we need to be cautious; we need to take it seriously,” he said.
Mpox, which is endemic in parts of central and west Africa, spread to the United States and Europe in May 2022. The viral disease is similar to smallpox but milder, and typically lasts two to four weeks. It usually begins with flu-like symptoms then progresses to a rash or lesions. It can spread through direct prolonged contact with someone with an active rash or by handling items that have touched an infectious rash.
The 2022 outbreak led to more than 30,000 cases of the disease and 42 deaths in the United States last year, according to CDC data.
More than 2,800 cases were recorded in Florida, with the outbreak peaking in August and the number of cases dropping to almost zero by the end of the year. Metro Inclusive administered 1,500 vaccines across Tampa Bay.
“We all thought it was going to be a major outbreak,” Bailey said. “Thankfully, the community did what it needed to do to prevent that happening.”
Only one case has been reported in Hillsborough this year compared to 229 in 2022, according to Florida Department of Health data. It shows three cases in Pinellas this year and 162 last year.
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Pinellas Department of Health spokesperson Tom Iovino said the county has an ample supply of the Jynneos vaccine, which is offered free at county clinics on a walk-in basis.
“The vaccine is still the most effective way to prevent the spread of the illness,” he said. “We’ll be watching very closely to see what happens.”
Despite the low numbers, mpox is likely endemic in the United States, said Brad Perkins, chief medical officer with Karius, a company that does advanced molecular testing for diagnosis and management of infectious diseases.
“It will be a persistent risk going forward,” he said. “The likelihood of being able to eradicate this virus like what was done with smallpox is pretty low.”
Karius is working with the CDC and the National Institutes of Health to conduct a study on the effectiveness of a test that can show the presence of mpox in the blood before lesions appear. Currently, tests are done through biopsies taken from rashes or lesions.
A recent CDC review of cases suggested that those infected with mpox who have HIV or other infections that compromise the immune system are more vulnerable to severe symptoms that could result in death. Early detection and treatment could greatly improve their outcomes, the study found.
“If you’ve been exposed and are wondering if you’re infected, the test could be very useful,” Perkins said.
Worried about mpox?
Mpox vaccines are available for free in Pinellas County at the following clinics on a walk-in basis between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Please bring a photo ID. If you have symptoms or need advice, call 727-824-6900.
St. Petersburg, 205 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N
Pinellas Park, 6350 76th Ave. N
Midcounty, 8751 Ulmerton Road, Largo
Clearwater, 310 N Myrtle Ave.
Hillsborough County residents should call their local health care provider or call the county’s Department of Health office at 813-307-8000 if they are worried about possible infection.