Local health authorities race to contain the highly contagious monkeypox virus

The monkeypox outbreak continues to grow faster than many initially expected. Nearly 6,000 cases have been reported in the U.S. since May and three states have issued emergency declarations over the outbreak in the last week. New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan joins Stephanie Sy to discuss efforts to contain the virus in one of the country's epicenters.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The monkeypox outbreak continues to grow faster than many initially expected. Nearly 6,000 cases have been reported in the U.S. since May.

    In the past week, three states have issued emergency declarations over the outbreak. Criticism has grown as well about the Biden administration's response. And, yesterday, the president named a coordinator for the federal efforts and shipped another 737,000 vaccines to states and cities.

    Stephanie Sy has more on the moves to contain it in one of the epicenters of the country.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, New York was the first to declare a state of emergency last Friday, as monkeypox cases there have reached over 1,000, with the majority of cases being in New York City.

    The New York City health commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, is the point person there and joins us now.

    Dr. Vasan, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

    I understand that, since June, New York City has had a hard time meeting the demand for monkeypox vaccine. So, a few months into this, where are you in having a handle on monkeypox in New York City?

  • Dr. Ashwin Vasan, New York City Health Commissioner:

    Yes, thanks for the question.

    New York, as ever, was really leading the way. We were the first in the country to start vaccinating people against monkeypox, people at risk of getting or risk of transmitting monkeypox, because we knew we needed to do our best to get ahead of it.

    And, certainly, vaccine supply has been constrained throughout this rollout. And that's limited the number of vaccines that we're able to deliver to slow this down. But I'm encouraged because we're starting to see that supply increase. We just got the announcement of our allocation from — against the 800,000 doses or so that are now in the country.

    And we're grateful to our federal partners, who I hope are now looking ahead to the next batch that this country is going to need. We are certainly the epicenter of this outbreak. We have 25 percent of the cases in the country. And we estimate that there are up to 150,000 people who might be at risk of getting or transmitting monkeypox, according to the current criteria.

    So we have a lot of work to do.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Doctor, we spoke earlier with Joe Osmundson. He's a microbiologist. He's a queer activist who has been in touch with a lot of folks impacted by the outbreak.

    And he told us that New York City's response to monkeypox is — quote — "not only not equitable. It is stressed, to the point of not functioning for most people, both on the treatment and post-exposure vaccinations."

    What is your response to that?

  • Dr. Ashwin Vasan:

    Look, we have tried from the beginning to prioritize urgency, getting shots in arms, and equity.

    What — we talk a lot about these large vaccination sites, similar to what we did for COVID, mass vaccination sites, but what's talked about less are the thousands of doses that we're reserving for community-based organizations that serve men who have sex with men, that serve communities of color, that serve the LGBTQ community that were reserving appointments for them, in order to ensure that equity is built into this approach.

    It's one of the lessons we learned from COVID. We and many places across the country got vaccines into arms as quickly as possible, but then we were left kind of working on equity for the weeks and months thereafter. We are trying to prioritize this from the beginning.

    It's very hard to ensure equity in an environment of deeply constrained supply. But I'm optimistic we will see the results in the coming weeks ahead.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It's been suggested that maybe having mobile vaccine clinics that would go directly to queer spaces, directly to LGBTQ circuit parties, that that might be a better way to get to the most vulnerable populations.

    Is that something that your office is considering?

  • Dr. Ashwin Vasan:

    Absolutely. We're actually working on this right now.

    We have learned through COVID that you can deliver vaccines in a targeted way to places where they're needed the most. And that has to complement an approach that also delivers vaccines at scale. It also complements an approach that, as I mentioned, works with community-based organizations that have long-term relationships, and that works with trusted providers, like HIV providers and LGBTQ-affirming clinical providers.

    So we're trying to take a really multidisciplinary approach to this. Again, it's really tough to do all of that in an environment of constrained supply. But I think we're seeing those gears turn.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Why has it been so difficult to get enough vaccine within New York City, which, as you say, makes up 25 percent of the nationwide cases?

  • Dr. Ashwin Vasan:

    Well, we make up 25 percent of the nationwide cases.

    And if you look at the last vaccine allocation, we got 10 percent of that allocation. While we are extraordinarily grateful to our partners in Washington and Atlanta and elsewhere for their efforts, we need more vaccine. And we need vaccine commensurate with the scale of the problem here.

    We also need the allocation between New York state and New York City to be in line with the burden on New York City. We represent — over 90 percent, almost 95 percent of the cases in the state are here in New York City. And yet we only got in the last round about 70 percent of the allocation from the overall state allocation.

    So, we have work to do on the basic math of this.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Doctor, let's talk about the Biden administration's response to monkeypox.

    As the top health official in the city with the most number of cases right now in the U.S., if you were in a room today with the just-appointed monkeypox coordinator, Robert Fenton, what would you want to relay to him?

  • Dr. Ashwin Vasan:

    Number one, I'm really encouraged by these appointments.

    Mr. Fenton and Dr. Daskalakis, who is a former colleague here from New York City, are really an embodiment of balancing operations and science for the best of both worlds. And that's really what we need. We need a science-driven response with speed and logistical efficiency.

    I would kind of emphasize to them once again that we have been running a COVID response for two-and-a-half years on emergency funds. We need emergency funds now and a declaration of an emergency now from the federal government to access those FEMA funds and other funds in order to mount the kind of response — and I would hope that this would trigger a longer-term conversation about what a permanent public health infrastructure looks like, because we can't keep running these responses off of emergency funds.

    We need that permanent, flexible, nimble public health infrastructure that can meet people where they are and respond to what people expect of us.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The New York City health commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan.

    Thank you so much, Doctor, for joining the "NewsHour."

  • Dr. Ashwin Vasan:

    Thanks a lot.

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