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The Biden administration has declared monkeypox a public health emergency

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra made a big declaration on monkeypox today.

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XAVIER BECERRA: I want to make an announcement today that I will be declaring a public health emergency on monkeypox.

CHANG: The announcement comes as U.S. monkeypox cases rise over 6,600. NPR's Pien Huang explains what that means for the response.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Monkeypox is a virus that causes serious illness and is spread quickly across state borders. That's a textbook public health emergency, says Lawrence Gostin, a professor of public health law at Georgetown University. And he says it's long past time that they declared it.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: But I'm really heartened. After a very sluggish and painfully bureaucratic response thus far, I can see a certain urgency in the administration that I hadn't seen before.

HUANG: First, the declaration tells the public that this is a problem that needs attention now. Here's Secretary Becerra.

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BECERRA: And we urge every American to take monkeypox seriously and to take responsibility to help us tackle this virus.

HUANG: Secondly, it opens up more resources and funding to combat the virus. Robert Fenton was named to the first White House monkeypox response coordinator just two days ago. He explained what the declaration will help do.

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ROBERT FENTON: This public health emergency will allow us to explore additional strategies to give vaccines and treatments more quickly out to the impacted communities.

HUANG: One way to do that, suggested by the FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, is to stretch the very limited vaccine supply by getting five doses instead of one out of every vial.

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ROBERT CALIFF: Under the proposed approach, a fifth of the current vaccine dose would be administered intradermally. There are some advantages to intradermal administration, including...

HUANG: He says administering it in the skin this way could help the immune response. It's a move that would also patch over some failures in the response that has left the U.S. without enough vaccines to cover the priority population. The CDC estimates there are 1.7 million people that are at highest risk for monkeypox, but the vaccines available so far would cover fewer than half of them. The administration says they're making progress, though. They've shipped more than 600,000 doses to states. They also say they're stepping up their education and outreach to help patients, doctors and nurses access testing and treatments. Gostin, from Georgetown, says this is the time for a full court response.

GOSTIN: The stakes - the stakes are huge. If we don't get it under control, we'll have endemic monkeypox in the United States for many years to come.

HUANG: Now, at least, he says the administration is treating this like the emergency that it is. Pien Huang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.