The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said Friday it has no plans to update the public health emergency declaration for mpox.
“Over the next 60 days we will focus on supporting jurisdictions and the Department to ensure the expiration of the PHE will not hinder response efforts,” the agency said in a statement. “The expiration of the PHE will signal we are leaving the emergency phase of the outbreak and are transitioning to the ongoing and urgent work of vaccinating those at-risk and providing treatments and other support to those affected so that we can continue the progress to a durable end of mpox transmission.”To help fight potential discrimination and stigma associated with the virus’ original name, monkeypox, the World Health Organization announced Monday that “mpox” is the preferred term for the virus and illness. The group continues to designate the outbreak as a public health emergency of international concern due to continuing transmission, gaps in research, an underreporting of cases and unequal access to vaccines and treatments.
The US declaration was issued in early August amid criticism that the government had been slow to act on the outbreak, which has primarily affected men who had sex with men.
As of Thursday afternoon, 29,603 cases of have been reported across the country, with 17 deaths, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, an average of seven cases are now being reported each day, down from a peak of over 600 a day in early August.
“Given the low number of cases today, HHS does not expect that it needs to renew the emergency declaration when it ends on January 31, 2023,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement Friday. “But we won’t take our foot off the gas – we will continue to monitor the case trends closely and encourage all at-risk individuals to get a free vaccine.”
One of the criticisms of the Biden administration’s response to the outbreak was that HHS waited more than three weeks after the first confirmed US case to order bulk stocks of the mpox vaccine, partly out of concern about its shelf life.
More than 855,000 vials of the Jynneos vaccine have since been sent to jurisdictions across the country. An intradermal vaccination strategy allows health care workers to get up to five doses from each vial.
President Joe Biden named Bob Fenton, a regional Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, and Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, director of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention at the CDC, as coordinators of the White House’s mpox response in August.
The appointments were critical to the efforts to get the virus under control, an administration official told CNN Friday on condition of anonymity, along with the intradermal vaccine strategy and efforts to reach out to the communities at highest risk of infection.
The administration will watch for shifts in the outbreak that may mean the response needs to be ramped up again, the official said, but officials expect case rates to stay low or fall even further.
Fenton’s and Daskalakis’ appointments are not tied to the emergency declaration and will continue for now, as will data collection and some other flexibilities provided by the emergency declaration.
Mpox cases have plummeted in recent weeks, with just a handful of new infections being reported every week in the month of November, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the height of the outbreak, over the summer, hundreds of people were being infected weekly.
The virus has primarily spread among men who have sex with infected men.
Also read: U.S. COVID cases are climbing again as new omicron variants spread
The public health emergency is expected to end in January, said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in a statement.
“Given the low number of cases today, HHS does not expect that it needs to renew the emergency declaration when it ends on January 31, 2023,” Becerra said. “But we won’t take our foot off the gas — we will continue to monitor the case trends closely and encourage all at-risk individuals to get a free vaccine.”
The U.S. struggled to contain the mpox outbreak for many months. Tests were difficult to come by and the government botched its rollout of the vaccine, with weeks of delays in getting 800,000 doses of the shots to clinics in the major cities that were hit hardest.
The tide began turning in August, shortly after the government declared a public health emergency and the White House tapped two top officials — Robert Fenton, who led the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s COVID-19 vaccination effort, and Dr. Demetre Daskalakis of the CDC — to lead the response to the virus outbreak.
Their strategy included reaching out to local clinics and vaccinating people at Pride events or parades. As the two-dose Jynneos vaccine became more readily available around the country, cases started falling.
To date, 17 people have died from the virus in the U.S.
Winding down the mpox public health emergency will be a test run of sorts for the Biden administration as it braces to declare an end of the COVID-19 public health emergency, which is expected to last at least through Jan. 11. The administration has given no indication of when it will declare an end to the coronavirus public health emergency but has promised to give at last 60 days notice.
Last month the World Health Organization renamed monkeypox as mpox, citing concerns the original name of the decades-old animal disease could be construed as discriminatory and racist.
The move represents a milestone in the monthslong effort to combat the virus, known until recently as monkeypox, which began to spread rapidly across the country earlier this spring.
The White House still plans to keep its mpox response operation intact, in hopes of further suppressing the virus’ spread and potentially eradicating it from the U.S. altogether. But the flexibilities, funding and additional resources that the administration sought to free up by declaring an emergency in August are no longer seen as critical to the effort.
“Given the low number of cases today, HHS does not expect that it needs to renew the emergency declaration,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “But we won’t take our foot off the gas — we will continue to monitor the case trends closely and encourage all at-risk individuals to get a free vaccine.”