Colorado has reported its first monkeypox hospitalizations, a state health official said Friday, and there’s now evidence that the virus is spreading locally for the first time.
There are only 20 known cases of monkeypox in Colorado, two months after the state reported its first case, and it remains a much less significant threat than COVID-19. But 11 new cases have been identified in the past week, doubling the number of known infections, according to state data, and health officials have been unable to trace the source of some recent infections. That’s a sign the virus is spreading locally; previously, all cases here could be traced back to an original source or to travel.
There have been no monkeypox deaths in Colorado thus far, said Alexis Burakoff, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Public Health and Environment. There have been multiple hospitalizations, but because the number is small and may identify the patients, she declined to identify how many or describe the nature of their treatment. A state health official said last month that many hospitalizations elsewhere in the United States have been for pain management.
“It’s not unexpected” that more cases are being identified, Burakoff continued, and improved testing may play some part in the increased number of reported cases. Commercial labs are now processing samples, in addition to the state’s health lab. Burakoff said there’s sufficient testing capacity in Colorado to meet demand.
Nationally, the number of reported cases is likely an undercount because testing is still ramping up. US officials are partnering with several large commercial testing laboratories — like the ones identified by Burakoff — and say they expect to be able to process 70,000 tests per week by the end of July.
Most monkeypox patients experience only fever, body aches, chills and fatigue. People with more serious illness may develop a rash and lesions on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body.
“I want to emphasize that we’re taking this extremely seriously. It’s a large response,” Burakoff said. “We’re working really hard to protect Coloradans. That said, 20 boxes is still a pretty small number. This isn’t COVID. This isn’t spreading rampantly at the grocery store or everywhere you go.”
Last month, when there were only five Colorado cases identified, all of them were among travelers and among men who have sex with other men, a state official told reporters in late June. On Friday, Burakoff declined to characterize those who’ve become ill but said the high-risk groups remain those who’ve traveled to hot spots and men who have sex with men.
Burakoff said the state isn’t planning any imminent strategy shifts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has unlocked more of the limited supply of monkeypox vaccines over the past several weeks, and Colorado officials have hosted several clinics and administered more than 800 doses to at-risk men or others who may have been exposed. More vaccines have been given to health care workers who also have been exposed.
The Food and Drug Administration announced this week that thousands more doses of the vaccine will soon be shipped to and across the United States, once a plant inspection is complete. Demand for the vaccine has been overwhelming elsewhere in the country, including New York.
More clinics will be held in Denver this weekend, Burakoff said, and the state is “pushing out (vaccines) as fast as we can.” Thus far, all of the clinics have been held in the metro area, where most of the cases have been identified. But state health officials “are starting to see some evidence of cases outside of the metro,” she said. She declined to identify where because the number is small and may identify patients.
Because the virus is spreading outside of Denver, the state is “hoping to expand” its monkeypox vaccine clinics elsewhere in the state, Burakoff said. She said if the epidemiological picture changes, the state will respond to meet it.
Burakoff stressed that anyone who thinks they’ve been exposed should first contact their health provider and then seek testing and treatment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.