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Federal Illinois lawmakers say declaring Monkeypox virus a national emergency is critical

A doctor administers a dose of the monkeypox vaccine on Saturday in London.
Hollie Adams
Getty Images
A doctor administers a dose of the monkeypox vaccine on Saturday in London.

President Joe Biden declared the monkeypox virus a national public health emergency Thursday - a move that several lawmakers from Illinois say is critical to curbing its spread.

The national declaration will mobilize federal agencies to hire more health staff, as well as direct funding to developing and testing more vaccines. This move comes after mounting pressure from lawmakers and health experts to adopt a more aggressive push to distribute vaccines.

Currently, the Department of Health and Human Services has shipped more than 602,000 doses to states. Their goal is to ship a total of 1.1 million doses within the next several weeks.

And Illinois has received a little over 39,000 of those doses as of Friday.

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky says this supply is not big enough to meet the demand at testing clinics in Chicago, where the state has seen the biggest outbreaks.

Her district office is located near a Test Positive Aware Network clinic, an HIV/AIDS testing clinic that recently expanded its services to include monkeypox testing. She remembers her staff handing out water to people waiting in long lines.

“They had only 100 vaccines to administer to each of the three [TPAN] clinics,” Schakowsky says. “The lines were wrapping all the way down Broadway and around the corner. So we don't want to encounter that for the rest of the summer.”

Illinois currently has 603 probable and confirmed monkeypox cases, the fourth highest in the country. Governor J.B. Pritzker declared a statewide public health emergency earlier this week, joining other states like New York and California.

Congressman Mike Quigley says he was pleased to see Pritzker taking quick action. Quigley, along with Schakowsky and congressmen Danny Davis and Raja Krishnamoorthi, had signed on toa letter urging the Biden administration to deliver the rest of the 1.1 million doses by early August.

“If COVID taught us anything, it’s that you have to get ahead of the game on something like this,” Quigley says.

He pointed out that this virus is disproportionately affecting members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“It's important to acknowledge that our country has a sad history of responding when this particular population is on the line,” Quigley says. “We can't let that ever happen again.”

While members of the LGBTQ+ community have been disproportionately affected, the virus can be spread to anyone through direct physical contact, touching objects or prolonged exposure to droplets.

As of late July, the Illinois Department of Public Health identified 125,000 individuals in Cook County alone who are at a higher risk of this exposure.

But due to limited vaccine supply, the health department is prioritizing giving the first dose to people who are eligible. This applies to people ages 18 years and older who have had sex with partners diagnosed with the virus or had multiple sexual partners in an area with known monkeypox.

As of now, there is no vaccine available for all children under 18, but providers can request a single dose through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under special circumstances.

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) is urging her constituents to follow safety protocols from local health departments, but says it’s ultimately up to the federal government to get ahead of this outbreak.

“President Biden’s declaration is an important action to curb the spread,” Duckworth says. “The federal government needs to work to ensure that we are producing enough vaccines and thoroughly tracking monkeypox cases to address and identify the populations most affected.”

Mawa is a statehouse reporter for WBEZ and Illinois Public Radio.