Congress is mostly silent as states struggle to contain monkeypox
WASHINGTON — Two months after doctors diagnosed the first case of monkeypox in the United States, Congress has yet to hold a hearing or pay special attention to the painful and debilitating virus that has spread to more than 4,600 people.
Public health officials in the Biden administration have held multiple briefings, expanded testing capacity to commercial labs nationwide, distributed more than 200,000 doses of vaccines, and begun ordering millions more for national stock.
Still, local health officials are struggling as cases rise rapidly, from 3,500 cases on Tuesday to 4,600 nationwide on Thursday. In New Orleans, one of the best healthcare providers for the LGBTQ community running out of vaccine doses this week, the Louisiana Illuminator reported. Florida and Georgia in the lead listing of the states with the most cases.
But congressional lawmakers haven’t paid much attention to monkeypox, which primarily affects the LGBTQ community.
No hearing took place. No press conference was devoted solely to monkeypox. Members of the House and Senate have only issued 15 press releases about the virus.
Meanwhile, the number of cases has rapidly increased as public health officials have tried to curb the spread and raise awareness.
The World Health Organization is so concerned that it classified monkeypox as a global public health emergency over the weekend and the Biden administration is seriously considering declaring it a public health emergency in the United States. (The CDC reported one case of monkeypox in Kansas on Thursday and six cases in Missouri.)
Democratic Washington Senator Patty Murray is one of the few lawmakers worried about the spread of the virus and the distribution of vaccines.
Last week, Murray, who chairs the Senate committee overseeing public health policy as well as a separate group that funds the nation’s public health infrastructure, sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, requesting a monkeypox briefing.
“Various reports indicate challenges at the local level, with some patients and providers saying they lack the information and resources to understand, test for, or respond to the disease, which now has unusual features,” Murray wrote.
“As the disease spreads through close and intimate contact, some patients seek care at sexual health clinics, which are often underresourced despite providing essential services to underserved communities, including the LGBTQ+ community,” said she added.
Murray wrote that while HHS “has already taken a number of steps to respond to the national monkeypox outbreak, including activating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emergency Operations Center, issuing guidelines and updated training for healthcare providers, mobilizing the Laboratory Response Network and working with commercial labs to expand testing capacity, deploy medical countermeasures and release a vaccination strategy for close contacts,” more action is needed.
Murray, however, has not scheduled a public hearing.
“We haven’t set a time for that yet,” Murray said this week. “We don’t have much time before August. We pursue as many paths as possible.
The US Senate is expected to leave Washington, DC, at the end of next week for its August recess, although that deadline could be extended to work on a reconciliation package. Senators are not expected to return to the Capitol until Labor Day.
The US House is due to leave on Friday for a six-week break, but could also be called back to work on an assault weapons ban and the reconciliation package.
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the top Republican on the health, education, labor and pensions committee that Murray chairs, said monkeypox needs ‘a lot’ more attention within Congress.
When asked if he would like the committee to hold a hearing, Burr replied, “I would love to have one.”
Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt — the top Republican on the panel that funds HHS, which Murray also chairs — said Congress doesn’t need to do more at this time.
“If there’s more that Congress doesn’t know, or that the administration should have asked, now would be the time to look into that,” Blunt said. “But I don’t think it’s at the point yet where it should generate a lot of investigative activity or even hearings.”
Blunt didn’t give a number of cases or a threshold that monkeypox would have to reach before it gets more congressional attention, saying simply that “it must be a bigger problem than it is right now. “.
Blunt added that he met with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky in her office last week and the two discussed monkeypox. But he noted that “Congress has not yet been asked to do anything specifically.”
“And the spread in our country is still very minimal,” Blunt said. “I’m open to any further input from the administration as to what they would like to see Congress do.”
New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over health care, said he doesn’t think Congress necessarily needs to hold hearings on monkeypox.
“I definitely think we could use more outreach, but there are different ways to get the word out,” Pallone said. “I don’t know if a hearing per se is necessary.”
Representative Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee that funds HHS, said she thinks “there’s been a lot of congressional attention” on the virus.
If the Biden administration needs additional funds to fight monkeypox, said DeLauro, D-Conn., it should send that additional spending request to Congress.
So far, Biden officials have not indicated that HHS or any other agency needs emergency funding from Congress to track the virus or distribute vaccines.
The White House asked U.S. lawmakers in March to approve $22.5 billion in emergency funding to address the COVID-19 outbreak at home and abroad. Two bipartisan agreements have since been reached, but neither has been put to a vote.
Problems for local elected officials
Local health officials, especially in areas with high case numbers, are struggling with vaccine distribution.
In the District of Columbia, which has a population of more than 700,000, the number of cases has increased so rapidly that the local health department was forced to change its vaccination strategy this week.
“Given the rapid increase in cases and the very limited vaccine supply, DC Health has decided that the most urgent priority is to provide the first doses of vaccine to high-risk residents,” reads a statement. communicated. statement of the department.
“This single-dose strategy is consistent with monkeypox vaccine delivery strategies used in the UK and Canada, as well as New York,” he continued.
The district has the highest number of cases per capita of any state in the country, although DC is not a state and its residents do not have full electoral representation in Congress.
In New Orleans, the clinic that ran out of doses doesn’t know when it might resume vaccinations. “At this point, we don’t even know who the other clinics have it,” clinic spokesman Joe Hui told the Louisiana Illuminator on Tuesday.
Monkeypox was first detected in a Massachusetts man in mid-May before spreading to nearly every state in the country. The number of cases stood at 4,639 on Thursday, but the number is climbing significantly every day.
New York, California and Illinois are among the states reporting the most cases. Alaska, Montana, Vermont and Wyoming have so far reported no cases, according to the CDC.
No American has died so far from the virus which can include chills, exhaustion, fever, headache, muscle aches and swollen lymph nodes. Monkeypox is often accompanied by a rash that may look like pimples or blisters, According to the CDC.
The virus is transmitted by direct physical contact with a person who has a rash or lesions on the body, as well as by respiratory droplets during prolonged and close contact or contact with items such as bedding or pads that someone with a rash has used.
According to public health officials, the current outbreak of monkeypox in the United States, Europe, and other countries not traditionally experiencing the virus primarily affects gay or bisexual people, or men who have sex with men. However, anyone – regardless of sexual orientation or gender – can become infected and spread monkeypox.
Other public health issues
While Congress has yet to pay much attention to monkeypox, US lawmakers regularly hold hearings on public health issues, before they reach a certain threshold.
The first US Senate briefing on COVID-19 took place on January 24, 2020 for about two dozen lawmakers.
At the time, there were two cases in the United States and the CDC said the threat to the public was low.
But the closed-door briefing included several senior officials, including CDC Director, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Preparedness and Response and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci .
The number of cases in China at the time was around 800 infections and at least 26 deaths.
Currently, there are nearly 21,000 cases of monkeypox in 77 different countries, according the CDC.
The United States topped the list for the highest number of cases on Thursday, followed by Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom and France.