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Since mid-May, Colorado, like many states, has seen a steady increase in cases of monkeypox. The state’s health department has logged a total of 79 cases, with 66 reported in July alone (although experts say that’s likely an undercount).

The current outbreak of the virus has alerted members of higher-risk groups and prompted a public health response that is now intensifying. This week, the Biden administration declared monkeypox a national emergency.

The designation will open up grant funding and more federal funding, including ordering more medical supplies for states. Gov. Jared Polis said Thursday Colorado will step up its response to the outbreak, including setting up more vaccination clinics and improving access to testing.

“We administer or distribute the extremely limited supply of vaccines that the federal government is making available to us as we receive them,” Polis said in a statement. “We will continue to advocate for more vaccines and are excited to hear more are on the way.”

What is monkeypox?

While monkeypox is rarely fatal, it can cause serious symptoms in those who contract it. People generally suffer from a flu-like illness followed by a rash or skin lesions or sores that can spread to any part of the body.

Symptoms typically appear seven to 14 days after exposure and last between two and four weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Monkeypox was discovered in monkey populations in Africa in 1958. The original source of the disease remains unknown, according to the CDC. Researchers recorded the first human case in 1970.

In the current outbreak, the virus is spreading primarily among men who have sex with other men, a group that includes people who identify as gay, bisexual, transgender and non-binary. However, transmission is not limited to people of a specific sexual orientation or gender identity.

Monkeypox can spread between anyone through close skin contact with wounds or other fabrics (clothing or bedding) used by someone with the disease. The virus can also spread through respiratory secretions.

“I think it’s critical that everyone understands what’s going on with this virus,” said Dr. Sarah Rowan, an infectious disease specialist at Denver Health who led the system’s response to the outbreak. “There are communities of higher transmission. But anyone can be exposed.”

Public health officials say one of the best ways to protect yourself is to get vaccinated against the disease if you’re in a higher risk group. There are also simple precautions you can take in everyday life.

How to get vaccinated in Colorado

Right now, the primary way to get a vaccine is to fill out an online form from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The form will open and close as the supply fluctuates. So check regularly to see if the agency has suspended submissions.

Due to the small number of offers, CDPHE only offers appointments for members of risk groups. In this current outbreak, that list includes men who have sex with multiple other men and people who have been directly exposed to the virus.

The dates are already fully booked until August 13, so expect a wait.

The Colorado Department of Health has vaccinated about 2,000 people against the disease so far. The FDA-approved Jynneos vaccine is a two-dose series, but officials have temporarily put the second dose on hold to protect as many people as possible with a first dose.

On August 1, Colorado ordered another 5,000 doses of vaccine from a federal supply. Officials say waiting times for vaccination should decrease once that arrives.

The state is also expanding the number of places people can get the vaccine. CDPHE has enrolled more than 30 providers statewide who will begin administering vaccines once supply catches up with demand in the coming months.

How to get tested for monkeypox

The state recommends anyone experiencing monkeypox symptoms contact their doctor to discuss the test.

Many vendors can now send PCR (swab) tests to commercial labs, according to CDPHE. The state laboratory also processed tests from vendors. Results take approximately 48 hours.

If you do not have a regular healthcare provider or insurance, you can contact a list of public health agencies and sexual health clinics on CDPHE’s website. Most providers do not test people who do not have symptoms.

If you have symptoms, let your doctor know before your visit. Wear a mask and cover any lesions with clothing or a bandage.

Much like vaccine supplies, the state’s testing capacity has been limited in recent months. And it’s close, said Dr. Rowan from Denver Health. Rowan and her team have been performing about 30 tests a week on patients with monkeypox symptoms since mid-July, she said.

“There is a general consensus that we should test more,” Rowan said. “We should have more negatives so we know we’re testing appropriately and we can get a better sense of how far the outbreak has spread.”

Many emergency clinics also offer testing, Rowan said.

If you test positive for monkeypox, you should self-isolate until symptoms go away. There are treatments.

How to protect yourself from monkeypox

Aside from getting the vaccine, doctors and public health experts say there are some steps people can take to reduce their risk of contracting monkeypox. Most of the advice revolves around limiting skin contact with people known to have the disease or are showing symptoms.

The CDC says to avoid close contact with people who have a rash that might resemble monkeypox. Do not touch the rash, scabs, clothing, or bedding of a person with monkeypox. Don’t kiss, hug, cuddle, or have sex with someone who has monkeypox symptoms.

Large gatherings also carry some risk of transmitting the disease. When deciding whether to attend, consider how much close, personal, skin-to-skin contact is likely to be at the event. Events where people are fully clothed are generally safer and less risky.

Some companies have started imposing safeguards like closing dressing rooms to reduce the risk.

Cheyenne Nichols, a tattoo artist in Lakewood, began asking clients to wear masks due to the nature of her work, which involves close skin-to-skin contact. They also began double-cleaning everything in their workspace and asking sick clients to reschedule their appointment.

“If I notice any lesions on someone’s hand or face, I will send them home and ask them to reschedule,” Nichols said. “I think my clients feel more comfortable in my chair knowing I’m doing everything I can to create a safe space.”

The leadership evolves. Public health agencies, including CDPHE, are regularly releasing more information on safer practices for attending gatherings and intimate relationships as the outbreak increases.

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