TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Monkeypox vaccines are now available for those at high risk in Tompkins County, announced the health department Friday.

While previously vaccines were only sent to locations with high monkeypox incidence rates, their arrival in Tompkins County is the result of an increasing supply statewide. There have still only been three documented cases of monkeypox in the county.

Vaccine clinics will be held at the Tompkins County Health Department at 55 Brown Road in Ithaca, and eligible individuals can register here for an appointment on Sept. 7 or here for an appointment on Sept. 8. Appointments can also be made via phone by dialing 2-1-1 (or 1-877-211-8667). The monkeypox vaccines are a two-dose series given four weeks apart.

At least currently, the eligibility to qualify for the vaccine is quite limited. The New York State Department of Health determines eligibility based on the following factors:

  • Individuals with recent exposure to a suspected or confirmed monkeypox case within the past 14 days.
  • Those at high risk of a recent exposure to monkeypox, including gay men and members of the bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming community and other communities of men who have sex with men and who have engaged in intimate or skin-to-skin contact with others in the past 14 days.
  • Individuals who have had skin-to-skin contact with someone in a social network experiencing monkeypox activity, including men who have sex with men who meet partners through an online website, digital application (“app”), or social event, such as a bar or party.

According to the health department, a vaccine within four days of exposure to monkeypox can decrease the risk of infection, while a vaccine within 14 days of exposure can reduce severity of symptoms.

The availability comes at a crucial time for Tompkins County, with college classes starting back up and, thusly, tens of thousands of students returning to the area. College students, in case readers were unaware, are known to occasionally have intimate skin-to-skin contact, though that hasn’t had any impact yet no monkeypox spread.

“Students have started to come back and we have not yet seen a rise in cases of monkeypox,” said Clare Espey, Director of Community Health Services. “It is very different than COVID-19, both in symptoms and transmission, so it really does require close and intimate contact to transmit. Right now the guidance is for people to be aware of and monitor themselves for symptoms, and to seek testing if they have a rash or other symptoms.”

Espey continued that lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic are influencing how the health department navigates the messaging of the current monkeypox response. Since the infection most prominently exists in the LGBTQ+ community currently (though, to be certain, anyone is at risk of infection), Espey said they have specifically crafted materials to be distributed among that community, and otherwise, regarding safe sex practices.

“I think we have a very compassionate community that is hungry for accurate information, our role is to make sure we get the word out and do it consistently,” she said. “We also communicate directly with the public more than we used to be able to, so our email newsletter around community health alerts and social media audiences are large, we put a significant amount of effort to reaching people who want to hear from us directly.”

The following information comes from the Tompkins County Health Department:

Monkeypox is spread through close physical contact between individuals. This includes:

  • Skin-to-skin contact with monkeypox sores or rashes; or skin contact with dressings, fabrics etc. which have come into contact with skin lesions.
  • While monkeypox can be spread to anyone, anywhere, current case trends demonstrate that monkeypox is currently spreading in New York State most rapidly among men who have sex with men, a group that includes people who identify as gay, bisexual, transgender, and nonbinary.
  • Sexual activity with multiple, casual partners significantly increases risk of infection. For more information on sexual health and monkeypox, visit this CDC fact sheet.
  • Being within 3 feet of an infected person (especially if they are coughing) since respiratory droplets and oral fluids from someone with monkeypox are contagious.

Symptoms of monkeypox include:

  • Rashes, bumps, or blisters on or around the genitals or in other areas like your hands, feet, chest, or face which are not clearly due to another known cause.
  • Please note that this current strain of monkeypox has a rash that does not present as it has previously; internet searches for “monkeypox rashes” may look different; any suspicious new rashes, bumps or blisters should be examined by a health care provider.
  • Swollen lymph glands.
  • Suspicion of monkeypox is greater if flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, muscle aches, chills, and fatigue are present as well. These symptoms may occur before or after the rash appears, or not at all.

Important facts and steps to take to reduce risk:

  • Avoid close face-to-face and skin-to-skin contact with someone who has a monkeypox-related rash or other symptoms.
  • Ask your sexual partner(s) whether they have a rash or other symptoms consistent with monkeypox and if so, delay sex until they are evaluated by a healthcare provider.
  • If you are exposed or experience symptoms, make sure to reach out to a health care provider and avoid having sexual contact until your health has been evaluated.
  • Reduce or avoid activities that may increase your exposure to monkeypox, especially when traveling to a region, state, or country where monkeypox is present.
  • Know that the disease is contagious from the onset of symptoms or rash until the scabs of the rash have dried up and fallen off and the skin is healing well underneath.
  • It may take 21 days from exposure until one develops signs of the infection.
  • Refer to the CDC’s guide to Safer Sex and Social Gatherings.

If you are concerned about your risk or that you may be experiencing symptoms, your health care provider can perform a risk-assessment and identify the appropriate steps to take, including testing. Testing includes swabbing a lesion and submitting to a laboratory for analysis. Healthcare providers, including sexual health clinics and urgent care centers, can perform and order this test. Individuals must isolate while awaiting their test results.

TCHD continues to urge local healthcare providers who suspect monkeypox to call TCHD at 607-274-6604 to speak with a communicable disease nurse for additional guidance.

Treatments are available for those who meet criteria and are infected with monkeypox, including antiviral medication. Anyone who does not currently have a health care provider or who is uninsured and seeking a local provider should dial 2-1-1 (1-877-211-8667).

Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa stated, “We’re glad to see vaccine become available locally and encourage anyone who is eligible to register for an appointment. Public health measures, like the vaccine, are working to stop the spread, please continue to stay informed, take precautions to prevent infection, and contact your health care provider right away if you suspect you may have come in contact with someone who has the disease or if you are experiencing symptoms. We are working closely with community partners to ensure precautions are being taken and information, including vaccine access, is being shared to groups who may be at high-risk of infection.”

As of September 1, a total of 3,255 New York state confirmed monkeypox cases have been identified, with 3,001 in New York City and smaller numbers in several New York State counties. A full county listing of monkeypox cases is available on the NYSDOH website and individuals are encouraged to review this site weekly for case number updates. To date, there have been no monkeypox related deaths reported in New York State.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com