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Biden administration poised to lift monkeypox emergency declaration

A July 18 rally in San Francisco demands that the federal government respond quickly to this year's monkeypox outbreak. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)

The Biden administration plans to end the public health emergency for monkeypox, officials said Friday, as new cases of the viral disease plummet.

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services issued a 60-day notice to lift the emergency declaration, which had gone into effect in August.

Nearly 30,000 Americans have been infected by the monkeypox virus since the start of a global outbreak in the spring, and 17 people have died. Cases largely have been concentrated in gay men who contracted the virus during sex.

The virus has not spread widely among the broader public, as authorities feared. Fewer than 10 cases a day are being reported, compared with more than 450 a day in early August.

“Given the low number of cases today, HHS does not expect that it needs to renew the emergency declaration when it ends on January 31, 2023,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “But we won’t take our foot off the gas — we will continue to monitor the case trends closely and encourage all at-risk individuals to get a free vaccine.”

Health officials stressed that the end of an emergency declaration does not mean the threat of monkeypox has passed. And they noted they may keep the emergency in place if there is a resurgence of infections.

Experts caution cases could rebound if immunity from vaccines wanes as people let down their guard, and if the virus establishes itself in animal hosts as it has in parts of Africa where it is endemic.

Monkeypox's toll: Five stories of men who contracted the virus

But the Biden administration says conditions no longer necessitate a public health emergency, a move which granted authorities additional funding and flexibility to respond to the outbreak. The administration said the emergency declaration allowed for an accelerated response, improved data collection and made it easier to distribute treatments and vaccines.

A senior administration official said measures that were facilitated by the emergency declaration can continue and authorities have the option to bring the emergency back if necessary.

“Just given where the counts are, it seems to make good sense to go from an emergency response without losing the urgency of what we are doing,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly.

Politico reported earlier this week the emergency declaration was likely to be lifted.

When Becerra declared the emergency, some public health experts said the move was overdue and that the Biden administration needed to move quicker to contain the virus.

Monkeypox presented one of the first major tests for the public health system to combat a rapidly spreading infectious disease since the arrival of the coronavirus. Unlike with that pathogen, tests, vaccines and treatments were already available for monkeypox, but were initially in short supply and difficult to deploy.

The White House in August tapped Robert J. Fenton Jr. of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Demetre C. Daskalakis, a senior official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to coordinate the monkeypox response. Officials say there are no immediate plans to disband their positions.

Health officials say vaccinating high-risk Americans for monkeypox remains a priority.

The United States has administered 1.1 million doses of the vaccine, but only about 400,000 recipients have received a second dose, which authorities believe is necessary for optimal protection. Racial disparities also persist, with White people receiving half of the doses even as most new infections are reported in Black and Latino men.

The World Health Organization and Biden administration recently announced they would start calling the virus mpox to reduce the stigma and racist language associated with calling it monkeypox. While the virus was dubbed monkeypox after it was detected in primates, scientists believe rodents or other animals are the primary vector.

The United States has also declared public health emergencies over opioids and coronavirus, with the Biden administration regularly renewing those declarations.

Lena H. Sun contributed to this report

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