BILLINGS — While the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, there’s a new virus capturing the nation’s attention - monkeypox. The CDC has confirmed about 6,000 cases in 48 different states, with Montana and Wyoming the only ones untouched so far. But Yellowstone County officials are planning for a different future.
"It's a huge focus of what we’re doing right now, not because we have cases, but because we’re getting ready to have cases," said Kelly Gardner, Riverstone Health's communicable diseases program manager.
Gardner's focus is getting out information - RiverStone has set up a dedicated line to call at (406) 247-3396. One of her main points is that the disease can affect anyone.
"Anybody can get monkeypox," said Gardner. "It is transmitted primarily through skin-to-skin contact."
Many initial U.S. cases were found among gay men, but both Gardner and Billings Clinic infectious disease specialist Dr. Neil Ku say that should no longer be the message, now that cases have been identified in women and children. Officials are also touting this strain’s unusual signs and symptoms, specifically lesions that can hurt a lot.
"The rash is very painful," Ku said. "It’s a disease that will resolve after two to four weeks, so the impact of that, having that individual be isolated that whole time, will be a very big challenge.”
Monekypox, which is related to smallpox, can be treated by an antiviral drug, for which Billings Clinic is hoping to be a distribution center. The disease will eventually go away on its own, but can cause serious problems during the typical two to four week span. There is a vaccine, just not much of it.
"We do have doses in Yellowstone County," Gardner said, "just a very small number of vaccines."
Montana has applied for its maximum federal allotment of 750 doses, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, which would treat 375 people since two doses are required four weeks apart. Only 40% of that is actually available now.
"We'll certainly need more doses," Ku said. "Once you identify a case, it’s very likely there will be more cases in that community. Once it gets here and we’re not prepared, we’re now just chasing the disease."
Everyone is painfully aware of what happened the last time the country did that.