Public health officials report first case of monkeypox in New Hanover County
On Monday, August 22nd, New Hanover County Public Health confirmed the first case of monkeypox in the county.
Public Health Director David Howard said the patient, diagnosed through a positive lab test, is isolating at home and those who came into contact with them are being notified.
Howard said public health is going through its investigative process for communicable diseases in that they interview the patient, find out about their activity throughout the incubation period, and they call contacts as quickly as possible.
“The analogy I use is, a virus like this moves relatively slow, it's like a forest fire where you drop a match on one end of the forest — that doesn't mean the rest of the forest is not at risk eventually. But that's where it is right now. So we're the firefighters working where the fire is, and so those are the folks that are eligible for the vaccine right now,” said Howard.
Howard said the virus is relatively rare — but it’s a serious illness that involves initial flu-like symptoms, which move to the swelling of lymph nodes and the emergence of a rash and/or skin lesions.
He said symptoms last about two to four weeks, and the virus spreads through intimate skin-to-skin contact. Further, he said this is not a respiratory virus like Covid-19 or the common cold.
“So people have been asking, is this an STI, a sexually transmitted infection? Well, that's one way that it readily transmits. But typically, an STI is one that transmits almost exclusively through sexual contact. That's not what this is, if someone has a lesion on their arm or their leg or something, and one of those lesions ruptures and gets on someone else, there's a chance they're going to touch it, touch their eye, touch their mouth, and then it's in their system. So we want to dispel that,” said Howard.
But he said even if the virus gets onto someone’s skin, it’s not necessarily going into one’s system, as skin provides a good defense unless there are open cuts or scrapes.
Further, the lesions that show up are typical of the last stage in the virus’ lifecycle. But even in their absence, someone can still pass it on to others.
"So they don't have to be present, it sometimes can start off as a rash, which develops into those lesions. So there's a progression that could happen over a couple of weeks," said Howard.
Howard also said hospitalizations are rare for the virus.
“Then those [lesions] heal eventually as our immune system defeats the virus. And most of these illnesses resolve themselves. We don't see a great deal of severity with any of the cases — there have been reports of some severe cases, but those are few and far between,” said Howard.
He reiterated that the public is not at high risk of contracting monkeypox.
“So it’s relatively safe to go about your business. There’s no real risk unless you're in physical contact with someone or close personal contact with someone who happens to have it. So we're mostly asking people to monitor their health, if they have any symptoms at all, see a provider, testing is available,” said Howard.
The Pandemic Operations Center at 1507 Greenfield Street also has been delivering free monkeypox vaccines since July for high-priority candidates – including people who have come into close contact with someone who has the virus, healthcare workers, and men who have sex with other men or transgender individuals who report any of the following in the last 90 days: having multiple anonymous sex partners, being diagnosed with an STD, and receiving HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis.
Howard said that since July, they’ve vaccinated about 250 people at the Operations Center and expect more to sign up for the vaccine now that the first case is confirmed.
“It’s relatively private there. For the most part, you don't have to have an appointment, but you can call and make one at 910-798-6800. For the most part, I'll put the word out that most people are coming in one at a time. It's not as if we're running a drive-thru, as you've seen us do before with a flu vaccination or something like that,” said Howard.
And vaccines are the best way individuals can protect themselves, according to Howard.
“And to prevent any transmission, but also lessen the severity, even if you didn't catch it, it very much protects you from a severe case, if that might be a possibility for you,” said Howard.
Alex Riley, NHC communications and outreach coordinator, said the county will provide further case information about monkeypox along with their Covid-19 transmission rates.
If you have monkeypox symptoms call your healthcare provider or the county’s communicable disease team at 910-367-2484.