HHS Declares Monkeypox a Public Health Emergency

Author: Robert S. Teachout, XpertHR Legal Editor

August 5, 2022

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared yesterday that monkeypox is a public health emergency, signaling the urgency with which the Biden administration is responding to the growing outbreak. Senior health officials hope that the emergency declaration will help speed up distribution of vaccines and treatments that have been in short supply.

"Ending the monkeypox outbreak is a critical priority for the Biden-Harris Administration. We are taking our response to the next level by declaring a public health emergency," said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. "With today's declaration we can further strengthen and accelerate our response."

The virus that causes monkeypox is related to the smallpox virus but results in much milder symptoms and is rarely fatal (the survival rate of monkeypox is 99%). However, persons with a weakened immune system, who have a history of eczema, are pregnant and/or breastfeeding, and children under the age of eight who contract monkeypox may be more prone to serious illness.

Monkeypox spreads through direct contact with monkeypox rash, scabs or bodily fluids. Unlike the virus that causes COVID-19, contagion can occur through contact, such as touching fabrics, objects and surfaces that have been used or touched by someone with the virus. The virus is contagious until the rash has healed fully, and the illness generally lasts two to four weeks. Symptoms generally start within three weeks of exposure to the virus and include:

  • Fever;
  • Headache;
  • Chills;
  • Muscle aches and backache;
  • Swollen lymph nodes;
  • Exhaustion;
  • Respiratory symptoms (e.g., sore throat, nasal congestion, or cough); and
  • Rashes (near genitals, hands, feet, chest, face or mouth)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has created a website to provide information on the monkeypox outbreak.

The public health emergency declaration comes just as the CDC is reported to be preparing to scale back COVID-19 recommendations. Current evidence shows there is low risk of transmitting monkeypox in the workplace, and many of the same protective measures that apply to COVID-19 also apply to monkeypox. Employers who have compliant COVID-19 protocols already in place should maintain them and educate their employees specifically on transmissibility and the signs and symptoms of monkeypox. Specific steps that employers can take include:

  • Review safety programs and emergency action plans to ensure they include infectious disease protocols;
  • Remind employees of recommended hygiene practices and prevention measures;
  • Encourage employees who test positive for monkeypox to isolate and remain out from work, and to consult with their healthcare providers and local health departments (the CDC has not recommended quarantine at this time); and
  • Provide leave to employees until the incubation period is exhausted or they return with a fitness-for-duty notice.

There are over 7100 confirmed cases of monkeypox in the US and nearly 27,000 cases globally. Before yesterday's announcement by the HHS, the World Health Organization had declared monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern on July 23, and California, Illinois and New York had declared their own state emergencies.