Regional task force aims to spread accurate information about reducing the risk of monkeypox

Even as the world navigates the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new virus is causing concern.

The good news about the worldwide outbreak of the monkeypox virus is it’s not airborne, it’s not a new virus, and we already have vaccines available in Bay County, says Joel Strasz, Public Health Director for the Bay County Health Department.

The bad news is that while the monkeypox virus is not considered a Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD), it is spread primarily through intimate contact. Many people affected by the virus now identify as men who have sex with men. That might make people less likely to inform close contacts of their exposure. It also may give some in the community a false sense of security. Strasz cautions people that he expects the virus to reach into all segments of the community before long.

Despite the expectation that the virus will continue to spread throughout the community, there are ways you can reduce your personal risk and exposure.

“It’s not highly transmissible, except through skin-to-skin contact,” Strasz says. “It’s being mis-characterized as a Sexually Transmitted Disease. It’s not. It’s a disease that’s spread skin-to-skin.”

So far, Strasz says there are no reported cases of a person contracting the virus in Bay County. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently declared monkeypox a public health emergency. And cases are beginning to show up in Michigan.

Earlier this month, the Regional Monkeypox Task Force formed in the Great Lakes Bay Region. Partners include: Great Lakes Bay Pride, Bay County Health Department, Midland County Department of Public Health, Saginaw County Health Department, Central Michigan District Health Department, and the Michigan Health Improvement Alliance (MiHIA)

Both Strasz and Scott Ellis, Executive Director of Great Lakes Bay Pride, call the task force an important step in controlling the spread of the virus and keeping the community informed of the risks.

“We want to make sure we’re getting ahead of this,” Ellis says, adding that his organization is happy to work together with public health experts to get accurate information to the community.

Strasz adds that Great Lakes Bay Pride has been instrumental in getting word out to a wide swath of Michigan residents. Great Lakes Bay Pride serves Bay, Saginaw, Midland, Clare, Isabella, and Tuscola counties. Strasz says that makes it an ideal partner to spread accurate information about monkeypox.

What are the symptoms of monkeypox?

If you get monkeypox, you can expect to deal with a painful rash for two to four weeks. Strasz says the pain is significant. Some people will need narcotics for it. Ellis adds that the quarantine period of weeks will be tough on individuals and the economy.

Other symptoms of monkeypox can include fever, headache, muscle aches and backache, swollen lymph nodes, chills, exhaustion, and respiratory symptoms such as sore throat, nasal congestion, or cough. Symptoms usually appear one to two weeks after infection. 

How does monkeypox spread?

While monkeypox has been in existence for years, it was very rare in the United States until 2022. Today, it’s still a rare disease in this country, but it’s on the rise. Monkeypox can spread to anyone through close, personal, often skin-to-skin contact including: 
  • Direct contact with monkeypox rash, sores, or scabs from a person with monkeypox.
  • Contact with objects, fabrics (clothing, bedding, or towels), and surfaces that have been used by someone with monkeypox. 
  • Contact with respiratory secretions, through kissing and other face-to-face contact,
This contact can happen in social and sexual situations including:  
  • Hugging, massage, and kissing.
  • Oral, anal, or vaginal sex or touching the genitals (penis, testicles, labia, and vagina) or anus (butt) of a person with monkeypox. 
  • Touching fabrics and objects that were used by a person with monkeypox and that have not been disinfected, such as utensils, cups, bedding, towels, clothing, and sex toys. 
What’s my risk of contracting monkeypox?

Strasz says people don’t always understand their risk. He hears from senior citizens who live alone and are unnecessarily worried. He also hears from people who have anonymous sex and don’t understand the risk they are taking.

For the most part, he thinks people in this area aren’t yet concerned.

“It’s not on people’s radars,” Strasz says. “Some people are absolutely flipping out but I still estimate about 60 to 70 percent think it’s not going to affect them," and that might not necessarily be the case long-term.

Strasz is concerned that as the disease spreads, people will continue to mis-understand the risk. He also worries that people with monkeypox may feel stigmatized and be unwilling to reveal their close contacts.

The unwillingness to inform others is especially dangerous.

The monkeypox vaccine is available in the region, but is most effective if it’s given within four days of exposure. If people don’t know they’ve been exposed, they won’t seek the vaccine in that timeframe. They also may not be cautious about close contacts with other people.

Strasz says he understands the reluctance to tell health department officials about intimate contacts. But he also assures people that all information shared is confidential. Health departments are accustomed to non-judgmental, confidential conversations about personal concerns.

“We want people to be truthful with us," Strasz says. "It’s important that we note we are doing this in the most confidential manner possible. We’ve got experience in dealing with STDs and family planning matters. We’re well grounded in ensuring confidentiality here.”

If you check state records, you’ll see one case reported in Bay County. Strasz says that individual is temporarily living out of state. The person did not contract the virus in Bay County and has not had contact with anyone in the county. However, the individual’s permanent address is inside Bay County.

Strasz says the case doesn’t represent a real risk here, right now. But he also thinks that's going to change.

“I really think it’s just a matter of time,” until a case is reported here, Strasz says.

How do I reduce my risk?

The health department, Great Lakes Bay Pride, and other organizations are trying to keep the community informed about the virus.

“We’re fortunate we have the vaccine,” Ellis says, but adds that the vaccine isn’t the only way to reduce risk. The Centers for Disease Control also offers advice on reducing risk on its website.

Anyone over 52 probably had a smallpox vaccine as a child. That vaccine offers some protection against monkeypox, Strasz says. Ellis adds that safer sex practices also reduce risk.

Washing your hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer helps slow the spread of many diseases including monkeypox, COVID-19, and the flu.

Do not share utensils, bedding, or have skin-to-skin contact with anyone with a rash that looks like monkeypox.

Where can I get more information about monkeypox and the vaccine?

If you think you’ve been exposed, want to ask about the vaccine, or have any other questions, area health departments want to talk to you. For information contact:For now, Strasz says his department is not planning any public vaccination clinics. Instead, the department screens individuals for their risk. If the screener determines there is a risk, then the department schedules confidential, private appointments for vaccination.

“I think the important thing to note is whatever we do, it’s confidential,” Strasz says.