Biden admin formally declares a ‘public health emergency’ over monkeypox outbreak

Ever since an outbreak in the United States of the monkeypox virus began in mid-May, almost wholly contained within the gay and bisexual male community, there have reportedly been discussions within President Joe Biden’s administration about whether to declare a “public health emergency” to deal with the disease.

That debate appears to have been settled as Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra issued a declaration Thursday that a “public health emergency” did exist in relation to the monkeypox outbreak, The Washington Post reported.

The purpose of such a declaration is to try and raise public awareness about the viral outbreak — currently, around 7,000 reported cases and almost exclusively among “men who have sex with men” — and to gain increased “flexibility” in terms of federal funding and processes for approving and distributing appropriate treatments and vaccine doses.

Public health emergency declared

During a briefing Thursday, Sec. Becerra told reporters, “We’re prepared to take our response to the next level in addressing this virus, and we urge every American to take monkeypox seriously and to take responsibility to help us tackle this virus.”

Later that day, the HHS secretary issued a declaration that read, “As a result of the consequences of an outbreak of monkeypox cases across multiple states, on this date and after consultation with public health officials as necessary, I, Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Health and Human Services, pursuant to the authority vested in me under section 319 of the Public Health Service Act, do hereby determine that a public health emergency exists nationwide.”

The Post noted that the World Health Organization already declared on July 23 that monkeypox was a “public health emergency” after outbreaks were reported in at least 70 countries, and states like California, Illinois, and New York have already followed the WHO’s lead and declared public health emergencies at the state level.

Monkeypox response coordinator named

This declaration from Sec. Becerra comes just two days after President Biden appointed Robert Felton, currently a regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to serve in the newly created position of White House National Monkeypox Response Coordinator.

“This public health emergency will allow us to explore additional strategies to get vaccines and treatments more quickly out in the affected communities,” Fenton told reporters Thursday. “And it will allow us to get more data from jurisdictions so we can effectively track and attack this outbreak.”

As to the rumors in the media that the administration has been debating internally for quite some time about whether or not to declare a public health emergency for monkeypox, the Post revealed that an “options memo” had been circulating to garner support for a declaration by explaining how such a declaration could prove beneficial.

Politico first reported on what it described as a “decision memo” and noted that it had “secured broad support” among the heads of the various health agencies within the federal government.

A politically risky move for Biden

Of course, this declaration on monkeypox is not without some risk for the Biden administration, as there are fears on the one hand that raising attention about the matter could increase stigmatization of the disease and those who primarily catch it, and on the other hand could invite mockery or ambivalence by elevating a disease that has predominately impacted a relatively small and contained community of people and poses little threat to the vast majority of Americans.

The bigger risk for Biden with this declaration comes politically, the Post noted, in that it opens him up to sharp criticism from his left flank with regard to the fact that, thus far, he has been resistant to demands that he similarly declare public health emergencies on issues like abortion rights, climate change, and gun violence, to say nothing of the ongoing and extended declared emergencies for COVID-19 and opioid overdose deaths.

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