The Riverside County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to ratify an emergency declaration for monkeypox on Monday, a move that officials hope will bring in more resources to combat the spreading virus.
Riverside County Public Health Officer Dr. Geoffrey Leung proclaimed a public health emergency on Aug. 8, and the board had seven days to ratify it. The move comes after California, the federal government and a handful of cities and counties in California declared the virus a public health emergency.
There have been 94 cases of monkeypox reported in Riverside County as of Tuesday.
Leung said during a special board meeting Monday the growing number of cases locally, the scarcity of vaccines and the potential to bring in more supplies contributed to declaring a public health emergency.
"We, most of all, wanted to make sure that the community knows this is a serious issue and a serious problem," Leung said. "It is a little bit different from COVID because we have a vaccine and we have treatments, but the resources are very limited and the cases have been rising quickly."
Though the monkeypox outbreak is not expected to impact emergency rooms and hospitals like during the COVID-19 pandemic, cases are nearly doubling each week in Riverside County.
Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by the monkeypox virus. People usually become infected through close contact with skin lesions or bodily fluids of infected animals or humans (alive or dead), including droplets, or clothing and linens from an infected person. The virus can also be spread through sexual contact, but it is not classified as a sexually transmitted infection.
Monkeypox can infect anyone. But during the current U.S. outbreak, it has disproportionately affected men who have sex with men, a group that includes people who identify as gay, bisexual, transgender and nonbinary. A majority of local cases have come from the Coachella Valley.
Males and transgender males have made up around 98.4% of monkeypox cases in the state, while females and transgender females have accounted for 1.2%, according to Aug. 11 data from the California Department of Public Health. There have been four patients under the age of 18 who have been infected with monkeypox in California as well.
On Tuesday, Riverside County Public Health reported an additional seven confirmed or probable monkeypox cases, including the first female patient. Five people are from the Coachella Valley, and two are from the western portion of the county.
"The potential to spread is there," said Public Health Director Kim Saruwatari. "We really want to highlight the fact that it is important that people pay attention to what is going on with monkeypox and take precautions to protect themselves so that we can limit spread and hopefully not have a large number of cases, particularly while we don't have the amount of vaccine that we need to be able to effectively get in and disrupt transmission in the community."
What about Palm Springs Pride events?
A number of large-scale events are planned in the coming months, such as Palm Springs Pride and Leather Pride, where thousands of visitors are expected in the area. Fourth District Supervisor V. Manuel Perez, whose district includes the Coachella Valley, alluded to the possibility of those events being canceled in order to curb the spread of the virus.
"I ask that we continue to work closely with the City of Palm Springs and (be in) constant communication ... just in case, eventually, we may have to declare a local state of emergency," Perez said. "There are going to be events happening very soon out here, and I just want them to be mindful that, potentially, we may need to cancel those events."
"I'm not saying we do now, but I just want to make sure we're mindful of all that so that we don't spread the disease," he continued.
At this time, Leather Pride is scheduled for Oct. 27 through 30, and Palm Springs Pride is set to take place Nov. 4 through 6.
Palm Springs Pride CEO and President Ron deHarte did not comment on whether a cancellation was being considered.
"Our focus at Palm Springs Pride is to help our community know the facts, understand prevention and have equitable access to care and treatment for MPV. It’s essential our community receives accurate and timely information," deHarte said in a statement Tuesday. "While at the same time, the public health priority must be on vaccine availability. Having more vaccine doses available will help slow the spread of the virus."
He added this is an "excellent opportunity" for public health messaging to raise awareness about the virus, and for community members to be "responsible and take appropriate action," as well as "follow health guidelines that may be in place."
Palm Springs resident Jeff Taylor said local officials should focus on vaccination efforts like other cities in the country and world rather than controlling people and their activities.
"We learned during the HIV pandemic that shutting down gay events didn't work, and especially now that people mostly meet online, it won't work now. What you lose is the opportunity to vaccinate and educate large numbers of people at once," said Taylor, the executive director of HIV+ Aging Research Project-Palm Springs. "Shutting down events and policing people's activities instead of taking the necessary steps to protect people will only serve to further erode people's trust in public health. The gay community still remembers the government's failure to address AIDS, and they see parallels in the inaction here."
Amy Blaisdell, communications director for the City of Palm Springs, said in an email Tuesday there have been conversations with public health officials about "sharing roles and perspective about how to respond," but there have not been specific conversations about canceling these events at this time.
"We are in contact with the County and will take appropriate steps, if and when necessary," she added.
County spokesperson Jose Arballo Jr. said the local public health department continues to lead efforts to slow the spread of the virus, which has included case investigation, contact tracing, vaccination, treatment, community outreach and canvassing.
"With Pride events coming up in Palm Springs and across the county, Public Health is planning to continue community outreach efforts to share important information, including at the Pride events," Arballo said.
During a recent monkeypox town hall meeting, resident David Wichman proposed an open vaccination clinic prior to the two events in order to protect locals and visitors.
As cases have been growing locally, vaccines have trickled in, but in smaller quantities than many would like to see — particularly because the Palm Springs area is a popular sex tourism destination.
Local health care providers have also primarily been administering shots to their high-risk patients.
The state allocates vaccines to local health departments based on a formula that weighs the number of reported monkeypox cases and number of early syphilis cases among males. Data from the California Department of Public Health on Aug. 9 states Riverside County has received and distributed 5,384 vaccine doses. Saruwatari added the county has received an additional 1,750 doses based on requests.
But local health officials are hopeful that the new delivery method for the Jynneos vaccine — one-fifth of a dose is now administered into the top layer of skin rather than a full dose into the fat layer under the skin — will get more vaccines in people's arms over the next several weeks. The Jynneos vaccine is licensed for adults ages 18 and older and is a two-dose vaccine series administered in the upper arm at least four weeks apart.
Taylor believes that, with the new delivery method, "we'll have plenty of vaccine supplies to ensure that everyone at risk gets vaccinated before Pride events start at the end of October."
"All our efforts need to be directed to vaccinating as many people as possible, as quickly as possible — that's the only way to get ahead of this," he continued. "The City of Montréal was able to vaccinate 10,000 people before its Pride events this month, and we need to do the same thing here."
Steven Henke, brand manager at DAP Health, said the nonprofit health care organization, one of the local vaccine providers, "continues to advocate for equitable distribution of the vaccine as a solution to this health crisis. And, with political support across the state, there is still time for that to happen before Pride."
Saruwatari is also hoping that state and federal funds will soon be available.
Riverside County Public Health continues to encourage healthy, safe practices in order to curb the spread of monkeypox, such as avoiding close, skin-to-skin contact with people who have a rash that looks like monkeypox, avoiding contact with objects and materials that a person with monkeypox has used, and washing hands often.
As more events return to the Palm Springs area in the coming months, Arballo said those where attendees are fully clothed and unlikely to share skin-to-skin contact are considered to be safer in terms of potential spread of monkeypox. But raves, parties or clubs, where there is minimal clothing or lead to direct, personal skin-to-skin contact, pose some risk, and enclosed spaces where intimate contact occurs, particularly with multiple anonymous partners, may have a higher likelihood of spreading monkeypox.
"With the help of the community, Pride events can be carried out safely to minimize the spread of MPX," Arballo said, "and we will continue to work with the city to share information about how MPX is spread, how to prevent it, and what to do if someone does develop a new rash, including potential options for treatment."
Ema Sasic covers entertainment and health in the Coachella Valley. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ema_sasic.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Board of Supervisors ratifies monkeypox emergency declaration