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What you need to know about monkeypox

Episode Summary

The World Health Organization has declared monkeypox a global emergency. We look into what we know, and take listener questions.

Episode Notes

Monkeypox is on the rise, and now officially considered a global health emergency. Cases in the U.S. number in the thousands and only took a week to double here in Los Angeles. The viral disease has, so far, mostly affected the LGBTQ community, but anyone can get it. So how worried should we be?

Today, we talk about what to know and answer listener questions. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times breaking news reporter Grace Toohey

More reading:

Monkeypox spreads in L.A. County, but vaccine shortage persists. What to know

World Health Organization declares monkeypox a global emergency

San Francisco officials declare state of emergency as monkeypox spreads

Episode Transcription

Gustavo: Monkeypox. It's on the rise, and now officially considered a global health emergency.

AP CLIP : The WHO’s chief says the expanding monkeypox outbreak in more than 70 countries and especially in Europe is an extraordinary situation that now qualifies for stronger action by health bodies. 

Gustavo: Cases in the US are now in the thousands. And it only took a week for cases to double here in Los Angeles. The viral disease has so far, mostly affected men who have sex with men. But anyone can get it.

AP CLIP : Children in the United States have been diagnosed with monkeypox. Officials think it was through household transmission living in the same house with an infected person.

Gustavo: So how worried should we be?

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Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano, you're listening to THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times. It's Friday, July 29th, 2022. 

Today, what you should know about monkeypox and how we might be failing to contain the next pandemic.

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Gustavo: My LA Times colleague Grace Toohey has been covering the monkeypox outbreak, she works on our fast break desk. Grace, welcome to The Times. 

Grace: Thank you for having me.

Gustavo: So at this point with monkeypox, I feel like we're in January, 2020, we're hearing about a viral disease and the media's all over it, but the public doesn't seem to care much because it's not affecting them. And yet there's this lingering paranoia of…well what happens if it gets big. And meanwhile, the government is running around, waving its hands and trying to yell at people “Hey, this may be a problem, but maybe not, but uh we don't really know.” So how worried should we really be at this point about monkeypox?

Grace: Yeah, that's a really good question. It should definitely be on people's radar. // This is something that is new and different. Like you're saying when COVID first came out, we didn't really know a lot about it. We haven't seen monkeypox outbreaks like this in the // recent past. So monkeypox has for the last, you know, a few decades been mostly in central and West Africa where it's mostly been spread by wild animals and there's been some outbreaks there, but this is really the first time that we've seen it spread really at this level  in the rest of the world. And so we're seeing it right now, primarily in Europe and America. And the way it's spreading is a little different too. It's spreading via person to person, skin, to skin contact. And so it's worth noting that this strain of monkeypox that we're seeing spread, is rarely deadly. But it can have some really difficult and rough symptoms. And the most common thing that we're seeing is these rashes or bumps or lesions; these pus filled sores that can show up on, really anywhere in the body. And it's not necessarily, you know, the whole body's gonna be covered. It can honestly be one or two of these lesions sometimes. And it often comes with typical flu-like symptoms. 

Gustavo: .Yeah, for me, it's like, it’s a virus. Viruses are never good. You should try to contain them. And if they get outta control, we've seen way too often what happens to that. And right now we've reported that monkeypox cases have already doubled in LA county within a week. So what's the current count?

Grace: Yeah. So this is a day-to-day changing situation. Right now, the cases as of Wednesday morning in LA county were at 261. And so, you know, it's important to note, that's still a pretty small number in the scale of the largest county in the nation. But as you said, cases are rapidly climbing. So a week ago there were 132 cases. So that's, you know, doubled in a week and a lot of experts are saying, this is probably a gross undercount, just because for so long, we had a challenge getting access to testing and for people to even know what this is like you're saying, it seems like flu-like symptoms for a lot of people. But it is continuing to go up and really interesting to note, an important to note is that most of these cases are occurring in queer men. // So these are men who have sex with men, and that's because of how we're seeing this virus spread right now. It is that skin to skin contact, which means it's really easy to spread during any sort of sexual encounter.

Gustavo: So just to clarify, monkeypox it's not a sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sexual activity, isn't the only way that this disease can get transmitted. 

Grace: Exactly. So right now it's not an STD. It spreads during sex, like I said, it spreads easily during sex, but it can be spread, you know, in any intimate contact where you know, there's that skin to skin touching. So that can be cuddling or hugging, especially if you're not wearing shirts. And then also it can spread through towels or bedding that has touched the virus that's been on someone, as well as it's been linked to spreading also through respiratory droplets. So it's not like COVID, you know, it doesn't spread // as easily as that, but if someone has a lesion maybe in their mouth or their throat, it can spread through kissing or really close contact for an extended period of time. But it is interesting; experts are actually still studying if it actually does spread through bodily fluids like semen. So if it actually does spread through sex and there has been some studies that have shown is some traces of the virus in semen. So people do need to be safe and it's still to be determined if it's going to be an STD. But people are recommending, wear condoms during sex, and that's a good way to protect yourself.

Gustavo: So how big of a public health risk is monkeypox at this point?

Grace: Right now the risk to the general public remains low. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be on your radar, shouldn't be a concern. But especially they're looking at high risk communities, so these are queer communities, especially gay and bisexual men, as well as transgender and non-binary people, just because of that's how it's spreading at the moment. If you do get monkeypox, as I said, it's rarely fatal. But the symptoms can be really difficult. You know, we've heard from some men who have experienced monkeypox and they're saying the lesions or the sores are so painful that they've actually needed pain medication just to deal with the symptoms. A lot of people are also saying that you know, it can last for weeks on end, three or four weeks where they're having symptoms and have to really isolate by themselves so they're not spreading it to anyone else. So it's really important to be able to check your body, especially sexual partners and make sure that you're doing all you can to try and not get this virus and spread it if you do end up getting it. A big thing to know though is unlike, you know, the beginning of COVID, you know, and we really knew nothing about this. 

Grace retrack: So….right now  there are two vaccines approved for monkeypox… but right now only one  is being distributed widely, and recommended for widespread use in the US. The other one has way more side effects and isn't being used widely, especially here in LA and California. But the vaccine for monkeypox is, according to studies, pretty effective at preventing monkeypox, you know, if you're able to get it before, and even after you've been exposed, they're saying that you can take this vaccine and it will help at least lessen symptoms, if someone does get the virus. And so that's a really important thing to keep in mind.

Gustavo: How widespread is a vaccine though?

Grace: That's the big problem here right now; the vaccine is extremely limited. There are not enough doses going around. The US, initially, had said that they were pretty prepared for this. The Biden administration,  you know, in May was saying that they had enough vaccine doses, but now we're two months later and there are nowhere near enough doses. Officials in Los Angeles county keep saying that it's so extremely limited they can't open it up  to anyone who might need them or want them they're having to create this eligibility requirements that are, you know, just a small sliver of the portion of the population they would like to get vaccinated.

Gustavo: Well, if you want a vaccine, where do you go or what do you do?

Grace: So right now in Los Angeles county, there's a certain eligibility for who can actually get the vaccine. And that's because they're trying to make sure that these vaccines are being distributed in a way that's equitable and reaching the most high risk population. And so the people who are first in line right now are people who have been identified as having had a close contact with someone who has monkeypox, or people who have been at a large event where there's been a high risk for monkeypox. And so for those two cases, you will actually be invited by the county health department to go get this vaccine. And then they've opened up eligibility to another few groups. And so these are available to gay or bisexual men or trans people who have had certain STD diagnoses in the past year or have worked or been at a commercial sex venue or have had anonymous sex or sex with multiple partners in the last three weeks. And so for this latter group, it's a little more confusing. You can actually get your healthcare provider to fill out a form that says that you would be eligible. Or you can go to some of the local county health or your local sexual health clinic and actually ask to get this vaccine. So if you meet these requirements, they're recommending you can actually reach out to your primary care physician and see if their clinic already has some of these vaccines, because they have been distributed to local healthcare providers, as well as sexual health clinics. And then if you're also a patient at a sexual health clinic, you can go and talk to your provider there and see if you can get the vaccine. And there are also some county health clinics that you can go to. But a great option is if you're dealing with this is to call 211, they are ready to take questions and help you find the best way to get a vaccine if you are eligible. And remember, you know, right now vaccines are so limited and that's why LA county is really limiting how they're being distributed. But they're really hopeful that in August they will get more vaccines and they will be able to expand the eligibility and get these vaccines out to more people. So they are telling some people that you might have to wait a few weeks to actually get the vaccine even if you think that you are at risk.

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Gustavo: After the break, what LGBTQ folks and advocates are saying about the monkeypox vaccine rollout. 

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Gustavo: So Grace, you talk to some people who have had monkeypox already. What did they say was the public health response to that here in Los Angeles County?//

Grace: Yeah. So I talked to a few people who have been through this disease and, you know, I think all of them agreed this is not something that you want to get. We do wanna take this seriously. But their main concerns were really just how slowly, whether it's the county, but also the federal government, is responding to this. One of them had been notified by a partner that they thought that they had monkeypox now. And so he started monitoring himself for symptoms. And once he thought he did have this lesion, he went and got tested and he said that process was okay to go through. But he really wanted to be able to get a vaccine or get some sort of treatment to help lessen his symptoms. But unfortunately there really isn't much treatment available to people who do not have severe cases right now. And so that's been definitely a frustration for people have. Europe has generally approved this antiviral that can be used to help people who have monkeypox and here in the US, it's been only approved for a really limited basis. And so these are mostly people who are high risk or having really severe reactions. And so the general population and people dealing with monkeypox, especially the men that I spoke with, were not able to get TPOCs. The CDC is trying to make it a little easier to get access to this, but it still takes a lot of paperwork, health officials are saying, and it's still pretty limited. But also a lot of people are saying they want to see that there's enough vaccines for people who might be exposed or who think they're at high risk. And they just are not able to get them. There are really long wait lists right now for vaccines. In LA county, they actually opened up an online form to get a vaccine. They had 4,000 slots and within hours earlier this week, that filled up. So you know, it just clearly shows how many people want to protect themselves and want to take care of this. And /// we're seeing the same thing in a lot of different cities. In San Francisco there's thousands of people on a wait list at one of the sexual health clinics to try and get this. And so a lot of people, even once they've gotten it, they're concerned about their friends. They're concerned about their community and they wanna make sure that this doesn't become a bigger issue than it already is.

Gustavo: What have politicians been saying so far about the public health response to monkeypox here in California?

Grace: Yeah, we've started to hear from a lot more of our public officials about this. The Department of Public Health has agreed, there are not enough vaccines and they say that they're trying to work with what they have. But a lot of officials are actually focused on the federal government and saying, you know, why aren't we getting enough of these vaccines? They exist and they can be made and they're not getting to our communities. And so that's been a lot of what we're hearing especially from,// local officials as well as statewide officials. The Department of Public Health for the state of California has requested hundreds of thousands of more vaccines, but they're not getting them. So it's been a really tough kind of back and forth. //  A lot of politicians are starting to question, you know, if the reason that we aren't getting enough resources for this LGBTQ community that's being most affected is because this is a historically disenfranchised community. And you know, a lot of // people are hearkening back to the AIDS epidemic and wanting to make sure that that doesn't happen again here. 

Gustavo: Yeah right now, it just seems so familiar. Like we've seen this before: a disease that anyone can get, but in the early days of spreading among the LGBTQ community, and the government just fumbling it all the way through.

Grace: Yeah. And that's one of the main concerns, you know,  people are saying there's a lot of people in the queer community who might not have a lot of access, whether it's to the internet to sign up for vaccine wait lists or transportation to get to these specific clinics that might not be in their communities. So there's a lot of barriers right now to getting vaccines and people are saying that we should be doing everything we can to get vaccines to those who are most at high risk. And officials say they're trying to but their hands are tied in a lot of ways just because there isn't enough.

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Gustavo: After the break, your monkeypox questions and some answers. 

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Gustavo: We put out a call to listeners to call in with any questions about monkeypox and more than a few of you did. So thank you for those of you who submitted your questions. So here's a couple of.

Tape: Hello, my name is Savina Tsinado. I live in San Diego, California.

Gustavo: Some of you like Savina had more than one question.

Tape: yeah, I was curious a why the news keeps only selling it as it's only going around the gay community and only really worry about it if you're a gay male, when it sounds like it's contagious in a lot of ways in skin contact. And then as a massage therapist am I considered a likely suspect to get this? Should I consider getting the vaccine and I heard it's just the family of the smallpox vaccine. Can I just get a smallpox vaccine?

Gustavo: Grace, your response.

Grace: Yeah. Great question. Thanks for calling in. So we have heard this a bit from a lot of different people wondering, you know, if you're a massage therapist, if you work in the medical field or you know if you're going to the gym where a lot of people, you know, aren't wearing a lot of clothes maybe, and are using the same equipment. And so the one thing that public health officials are saying for those sorts of situations is, definitely take care and use those sanitary precautions, wipe down equipment. So that would be the same thing if you're a massage therapist. Right now experts are not recommending that certain professions get the vaccine, They're not saying that there is that high risk., And then as for the smallpox vaccine, that's a great question. You know, some people early on were thinking if they had gotten the smallpox vaccine as children, they would be protected. But research is showing there might be some protection still from that, but it's not the same as the current monkeypox vaccine, which is the Jynneos vaccine and that is what's being recommended. So right now it's probably gonna be a wait and see for how this /// virus continues to progress. And if we end up seeing it more widespread than just in that really intimate skin to skin contact where it's spreading mostly during sexual contact.

Gustavo: Next question… 

Tape: Hi, this is Jacqueline. I live in La Jolla and I wanted to know more about monkeypox and, my concern is going back to school in the fall. I'm wondering should we start getting vaccinations and preparing for this? And what is the outlook looking like based on the numbers that are coming in? Thank you so much.

Gustavo: Grace, school is starting for most folks in August and September. What do you know about risks of monkeypox spreading in places like that?

Grace: /We have seen actually two cases in the US of monkeypox spreading into children and those have been linked to household cases, so someone else in the household actually had monkeypox, which, it can spread on seats or in towels, bedding, things like that. But for the most part, it shouldn't be a concern right now going back to school. But as we said, it's a day to day changing situation. And so we're gonna have to keep seeing how this spreads and how it progresses moving forward.

Gustavo: One more question for you, grace, from Kelsey and Highland park.

Tape: I just want to know how we should go about navigating public transportation from now on . Should, those who can avoid sitting on upholstered seats. And for those who have to sit, should they consider putting a layer of protection, like a towel or medical exam, paper sheets, and as for railings, is it advisable to wear gloves if we were gonna touch public surfaces? Thank you.

Gustavo: What do public health officials say about that, Grace?

Grace: Yeah. So as we said, right now, there isn't a huge risk for that, where we're seeing the spreading is really that really, close, intimate skin to skin contact.Though we know it has spread sometimes on bedding or sheets, things like that. What they're recommending right now is, a lot of these precautions that we've been hearing people should be taking during COVID as well., If you're able to bring a sanitizing wipe,  if you're going onto an airplane, or a bus seat, and you wanna wipe down the seat, they're saying that would definitely be a good precaution that you can take. But we're not really hearing that,, you should be, you know, wearing gloves or that it's really gonna be sticking around on railings that long right now. But I just wanna make the same qualification that we've been saying, is that this is such a new virus, it's been in the US the last two months. And so we're gonna keep monitoring how it's spreading and we will get that information out there. If that changes.

Gustavo: Finally Grace, what resources do you recommend // to our listeners if they have more questions about monkeypox?

Grace: Yeah. So right now our best resources are definitely check out the CDC’s website on monkeypox. They have a lot of information about // how it starts, how it's spread, how to get vaccines, what the vaccines can do. And then also locally, I would recommend going to your public health website to understand what kind of cases there are in your community. And if you might be someone who could be at high risk, and if so, how you can get some of that preventative vaccine.

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Gustavo: Grace. Thank you so much for this conversation.

Grace: Thank you. Appreciate you having me on. 

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Gustavo: Gustavo: And that’s it for this episode of THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times

Surya Hendry, Ashlea Brown and David Toledo were the jefas on this episode and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it.. 

Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Brousalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Madalyn Amato and Carlos De Loera. Our intern is Surya Hendry. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

Like what you’re listening to? Then make sure to follow THE TIMES on whatever platform you use. I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.

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