Monkeypox in Colorado: Young adult men in the Denver area are most at risk as cases continue to climb

Monkeypox Vaccine
Seth Wenig/AP Photo
A woman administers the monkeypox vaccine at a walk-in clinic at the North Jersey Community Research Initiative in Newark, N.J., Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022.

Cases of monkeypox, a rare but serious disease, are rising, and Colorado health officials told reporters in a briefing Thursday they’re ramping up in response.

“I think there's reason for concern for monkeypox because we're seeing an increase in infections,” said Dr. Connie Price, the Chief Medical Officer with Denver Health. “We have an opportunity that I think was much greater than we had with COVID to actually control it.”

Price said monkeypox is not as transmissible as COVID-19 and that it’s unlikely to evolve that way.

More information about the monkeypox outbreak will now be published online. It clearly shows the group currently most at risk, based on the data: young adult men in or near Denver.

The health department's monkeypox dashboard now has county-level and demographic data.

The state said it's expanding the data on the monkeypox dashboard they rolled out earlier this month. It will now include county-level case counts and demographic data.

The health department created the dashboard with input from community leaders, LGBTQ advocacy organizations, and local public health agencies, to ensure data transparency while protecting patient privacy.

“We have been working closely with trusted community members to develop the data sharing practices,” on the website, said state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy. She said that included some “data suppression” to protect privacy, especially in less populated counties “when there's case counts of one or two, there is the potential for individuals to be identified.” 

The updated dashboard clearly spells out how monkeypox is now hitting Colorado. A bar near the top shows six people are hospitalized, no one in the state has died and cases have been identified in 19 counties. The first cases were found in Colorado in May. The numbers grew from there to six in June, 66 in July and 94 in August, for a total of 168 to date.

Denver has recorded 59 cases, followed by Adams, Arapahoe, Jefferson and El Paso counties also in double digits. Eighty-five percent of cases are in men. The bulk of the cases are in younger adults: three in four are in those aged 18 to 44. Nearly 77 percent of cases are in people who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Following on the heels of two-plus years of grappling with COVID-19, and with other diseases like polio reemerging in the U.S., another health department official sought to reassure Coloradans.

“Public health will always be monitoring the situation and always ready to scale our response and that we would communicate to the public,” no matter the threat, said Scott Bookman, who directs the Division of Disease Control and Public Health Response. “We are preparing to respond in any way that we need to, and we are committed to transparent, open communication with the public, so they understand their risk and understand the actions that they need to take.”

The greatest risk is among ay, bisexual, or other men who have sex with men.

Based on the data the state health department is collecting both here in Colorado and nationally, “we are seeing that the greatest risk at this time is among, gay, bisexual, or other men who have sex with men,” said Herlihy. “That is primarily, here in Colorado, in the Denver metro area, but we have seen cases outside of the metro area as well.”

But as the state looks to ramp up response to the spread of another contagious disease, plenty of questions are popping up: about vaccines, tests, risks in schools and colleges.

As for schools, Herlihy said “I think it is important to note in the data that I shared today, that we have not seen any pediatric cases here in Colorado. But we are anxiously awaiting guidance from CDC.”

She said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had let Colorado public health officials know they expect to release school and childcare guidance very soon. She said the state health department is talking to partners across the state and “encouraging the routine practices that we use now to prevent communicable diseases in schools, our practices that really should continue for monkeypox.”

Monkeypox guidance to schools and higher ed institutions

Herlihy noted the state recently updated its school guidance around COVID-19 and said there's guidance there about general infection prevention strategies in schools.

She said public health officials believe brief interactions without physical contact, so passing someone at a grocery store, would not be considered a risk for monkeypox transmission. 

“Again, the major route of transmission really continues to be that close physical contact, including contact during sex," she said.

Herlihy said the agency is having conversations with higher education institutions, which she said have learned a lot from the COVID-19 experience, including in resident halls, considered congregate, or higher risk, settings.

“Some of the strategies that they've been using, things like having places for students to isolate if they were to test positive, are going to be potentially important strategies again,” she said.

Monkeypox vaccine availability and supply in Colorado

Monkeypox vaccines are available but in short supply, Bookman said, based on the federal allocation of it. 

“Now we are hopeful that we will see more coming, in the coming weeks and coming months,” he said, adding that the state is prioritizing the vaccine to the places where we are seeing the largest amount of community spread and where the need is, which now is in the Denver metro area.

He said the state is expanding its distribution network; it now includes 59 providers, to which it’s distributed 3,500 doses. He said the state has administered more than 4,000 doses and that vaccine data also would appear on the state’s website.

Price said Denver Health has administered nearly 500 doses to people who meet criteria for close contact.  Price added that there are non-research, experimental treatments available to those who have severe disease once they are diagnosed.

Herlihy said monkeypox testing is expanding and commercial labs nationwide have been coming online to test as well.

“Commercial lab testing is available and really recommended for patients who have insurance, um, that can be processed through primary care providers or other healthcare providers,” she said. “We know that most large systems in the state now are able to collect specimens and do this testing.”

 She said it does not require preapproval from the state health department and specimens can be collected with materials that many providers have on hand.