In June, Georgia saw its first-ever case of monkeypox. Now cases have skyrocketed to over 700. Leah Fleming talks to GPB health reporter Ellen Eldridge about the outbreak.

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Georgia, along with many parts of the country, is still seeing high levels of COVID-19 transmission. That's been the case for a few weeks now. But now we have a new public health emergency. GPB Morning Edition host Leah Fleming spoke with GPB senior health reporter Ellen Eldridge, who has been talking to public health experts, getting the latest information on the monkeypox outbreak in Georgia and what to make of it.

Ellen Eldridge: We had in Georgia, our very first case ever was just confirmed the first week of June. That was just two months ago. As of Wednesday morning, we're up to 749 cases in Georgia. Nationwide, we're almost at the 10,000. So for people who aren't familiar, it's not like chickenpox, but it is similar to smallpox. And there is a vaccine. As many of our listeners probably heard, the Biden administration declared a national public health emergency for monkeypox, and that helps fund testing and the distribution of vaccines. So as the manufacturer ramps up supply, appointments are available all throughout Georgia, but the state health department only expects about 34,000 doses in the next month or so. And this is a two-dose vaccine like COVID. So 34,000 doses is only enough for 17,000 people and it takes about six weeks to reach that full maximum immunity. So this is something that's important to know about, for high-risk people especially.

Leah Fleming: So who's most at risk of getting monkeypox and therefore able to get a vaccine?

Ellen Eldridge: Unfortunately, again, we're seeing communities of color. We're seeing it's 99% of the cases are men who have sex with men. And 94% of those, according to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], had had sex within the last three weeks. And then in the Atlanta area, the state health department put out a notice that, unfortunately, 82% of those are Black men, and of those, another two-thirds are already HIV positive. So it's — these are the communities. It's also disproportionately affecting people in the metro Atlanta area. So these are people who are considered high-risk who really should consider getting one of those vaccines. This is something that's spread by close physical, prolonged contact. This isn't something that you're going to pick up in the grocery store on the MARTA trains. This is something, you know, really, you need to be quite close to somebody. So sex is a way to get it, but it's not a sexually transmitted disease. Dr. Melanie Thompson is an expert with Emory. She's long worked with HIV.

Dr. Melanie Thompson: You know, even though we say monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted infection like chlamydia or gonorrhea or syphilis, sex is a very efficient way to transmit monkeypox. And so the distinction between saying it's sexually transmitted or not, really, for the population most impacted, is really not much of a difference.

Leah Fleming: So what are the symptoms of monkeypox and how do you know if you should get tested?

Ellen Eldridge: Unfortunately, the symptoms kind of mimic a lot of other symptoms, but in I think virtually 100% of the cases, there's a rash associated with it. ... A public health supply chain expert, Julie Swann, she says that even many doctors never expected to see a case of monkeypox. So, you know, again, the people who who are in a high-risk category, they may have fever, body chills, swollen lymph nodes. And then that rash, which you can see on our website, have some of the rashes appearing. Almost half of the cases so far have found that rash in the genital region, but it can also appear on the arms, legs, hands, different places of the body. So, yeah, I mean, that — that rash may or may not get noticed right away. And again, many of the people aren't presenting is particularly ill.

Leah Fleming: Finally, let's go back to COVID-19. How serious is this BA.5 variant and how concerned should Georgians be about that?

Ellen Eldridge: Yeah. At this point in the pandemic, I know everybody wants to believe it's over. Everybody wants to get on with their life. But kids are heading back to school now. Many, many students in Georgia are already back at school and they should know their kids are going to be exposed to COVID. There's very few people who have not yet gotten it, and the issues are the variants, like BA.5. Last year, when kids went back to school, we saw the wave of delta cases and then we saw omicron, and now we're seeing sub-variants of omicron. And the vaccines are trying to keep up. We're hoping for a new booster to come out, hopefully as early as October. But if you haven't been vaccinated, if you haven't gotten your kids vaccinated, you really should consider doing so to protect them, because this disease — there's high levels of COVID transmission in Georgia as well as the entire United States.

Leah Fleming: And masking still works.

Ellen Eldridge: It does. Masking helps prevent other infectious diseases, too, like the flu and even the common cold.

Leah Fleming: Thank you, Ellen. I reached out to Nancy Nydam, the director of communications for the state Department of Public Health to get an interview with Dr. Kathleen Toomey, who is the commissioner of the Department of Public Health.  Nydam declined to make Dr. Toomey available.  Dr. Toomey has spoken publicly about the need for fact-based information to combat disinformation.  The invitation remains open for Dr. Toomey to join us on Morning Edition to do just that.