Monkeypox in Chicago: Answering questions about the outbreak

Here’s what we know so far about how many monkeypox cases there are in Chicago, who is eligible for a vaccine and how to get tested.

A medical student administers monkeypox vaccines on Monday, Aug. 1, at TPAN in Edgewater.
A medical student administers monkeypox vaccines on Monday, Aug. 1, at TPAN in Edgewater. The nonprofit and the Chicago Department of Public Health have collaborated with Rush University Medical Center and the University of Illinois-Chicago to host a weekly vaccine clinic, which has drawn large crowds. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
A medical student administers monkeypox vaccines on Monday, Aug. 1, at TPAN in Edgewater.
A medical student administers monkeypox vaccines on Monday, Aug. 1, at TPAN in Edgewater. The nonprofit and the Chicago Department of Public Health have collaborated with Rush University Medical Center and the University of Illinois-Chicago to host a weekly vaccine clinic, which has drawn large crowds. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Monkeypox in Chicago: Answering questions about the outbreak

Here’s what we know so far about how many monkeypox cases there are in Chicago, who is eligible for a vaccine and how to get tested.

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Illinois’ monkeypox outbreak continues to grow, and health officials say numbers will keep climbing as testing becomes more widely available.

While anyone can contract monkeypox, the virus has predominately affected gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men.

As the virus spreads, more questions have surfaced about the outbreak. Some of those questions, which we’ve answered below, include the risks of attending a large festival or social gathering and whether condoms stop the spread of the virus.

Have questions that we didn’t answer here? Email web@wbez.org or use #WBEZmonkeypoxFAQ on social media. This story will be updated as we learn more.

How many monkeypox cases have been reported in Chicago and Illinois?

As of Aug. 11, the Chicago Department of Public Health has reported 584 cases of monkeypox in the city. The latest case counts can be found on the CDPH website. The city makes up a vast majority of Illinois’ 717 cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which posts statewide totals on its website.

How many people in Chicago have been hospitalized or died from monkeypox?

Thirty people have been hospitalized with monkeypox in Chicago as of Aug. 11, according to the Department of Public Health. No monkeypox-related deaths have been reported in Chicago.

Who has been most affected by the monkeypox outbreak?

Anybody can get monkeypox, but “most but not all” of Chicago’s cases have been in gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men, according to Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s top public health official.

The people diagnosed in Chicago range from 22 to 66 years old as of Aug 2, Arwady said.

The racial and ethnic breakdown of reported cases during that time has been 46% white, 30% Latino, 16% Black, 4% Asian and 4% other or unknown, according to demographics collected by the city.

Can you die from monkeypox?

The World Health Organization said that while symptoms will go away on their own for most people, an infection can lead to medical complications and even death. Newborn babies, children and people with underlying immune deficiencies may be at risk of more serious symptoms and death.

Complications can include secondary skin infections, pneumonia, confusion and eye problems. Between 1% and 10% of people with monkeypox have died in past outbreaks.

How does monkeypox spread?

Monkeypox is spread primarily through skin-to-skin contact or prolonged intimate contact like kissing, cuddling and sex, Dr. Allison Arwady said. The virus can also be spread by sharing bedding or towels with someone who has monkeypox, according to the CDC.

“Based on everything we know now, monkeypox is not spread through casual conversations, or by walking by someone with monkeypox, like you might in a grocery store. It is not as contagious as influenza or COVID,” Arwady said.

CDPH said monkeypox is unlikely to spread by dancing at a crowded party with fully clothed people, by touching doorknobs, traveling in an airport, using hot tubs or pools, on public transit or in public restrooms.

What are the symptoms of monkeypox?

Most people with monkeypox will get a rash or sores that look like pimples or blisters, which may appear anywhere on the body, including the genitals. Some people will also experience other symptoms such as fever, chills, headaches or muscle aches, according to the CDC.

Symptoms usually begin within three weeks of exposure. A rash can develop one to four days after flu-like symptoms begin, according to the CDC. The virus can be spread from the time symptoms start until the rash is fully healed, which is typically two to four weeks.

What should you do if you think you have monkeypox?

If you have a new or unexplained rash, call a health care provider, isolate yourself from others and don’t share personal items until you test negative.

Chicagoans without a primary care doctor can call the Chicago Department of Public Health at 312-746-4835.

Where can I get tested in Chicago for monkeypox?

Any doctor can do a test for monkeypox, also known as MPV, which is conducted by swabbing the rash or sores.

“Tests are widely available,” Dr. Allison Arwady said. “I really want to emphasize that. Our top line message is that anybody who has one of these rashes that could be consistent with MPV can get tested at any health care provider.”

For people without insurance, federally qualified health care centers in the city are offering tests. CDPH is also doing monkeypox testing at its STI clinics. Anyone can call the CDPH at 312-746-4835 to find a test location.

Is there a monkeypox vaccine?

There’s an FDA-approved two-dose vaccine called Jynneos, which is recommended for people who have been exposed to monkeypox and people more likely to get the virus, according to the CDC.

“This is a vaccine that you can get even after you have been exposed that can significantly decrease your risk of developing monkeypox,” Dr. Allison Arwady said.

The vaccine, however, is currently in short supply. While the U.S. keeps limited amounts of the vaccine in the national stockpile, it does not have enough on hand to respond to the current outbreak.

Doses of the monkeypox vaccine, Jynneos, at TPAN’s vaccine clinic on Aug. 1 in Chicago.
Doses of the monkeypox vaccine, Jynneos, at TPAN’s vaccine clinic on Aug. 1 in Chicago. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

How many monkeypox vaccine doses has Chicago received?

The city initially received 5,000 doses of the two-dose monkeypox vaccine Jynneos from the national stockpile. Chicago received an additional 15,000 doses from the federal government in late July.

Another 13,000 doses arrived in Chicago on Aug. 3. Dr. Allison Arwady said demand is still far outpacing supply. Local health officials estimate there are 120,000 men who have sex with men in Cook County.

“As quickly as they get here, we get them out through partners,” Arwady said. “Jurisdictions have to show that they are using the vaccine that has been allocated before more is sent, but that’s not really our issue here in Chicago, we’ve got plenty of demand and a really strong distribution system. It’s just about having enough vaccine.”

Who can get a vaccine right now?

Here’s how the city is prioritizing who is able to get the vaccine. The shot is not recommended for the general public, including men who have sex with men, unless you have the following risk factors:

  • If you have had close physical contact or were intimate with someone who has been diagnosed with monkeypox.

  • If you are gay, bisexual or a man who has sex with men and have had sexual contact with other men in a social venue or otherwise have had multiple anonymous partners and therefore may not be able to adequately contact trace.

The city has also made a decision to prioritize first doses of the Jynneos vaccine. While the vaccine called for a second dose at least 28 days after the initial shot, Dr. Allison Arwady said the biggest increase in protection is after the first dose. Second doses are still being offered to immunocompromised people

“This is just a way for us to try to stretch out the vaccine that we have without significantly increasing individuals’ risk,” Arwady said. “As more [vaccine] comes, we will offer a second dose to everybody but it may be even a few months down the line.

Where do I get a vaccine?

Vaccines are available at health providers across the city, including clinics run by the Chicago Department of Public Health and partners like Howard Brown Health, Wellness Home and Esperanza Health Centers. A list of providers can be found on CDPH’s website.

Vaccine clinics have seen huge turnout so far, which has resulted in long lines of people waiting for hours hoping to get a shot. Dr. Allison Arwady said the health department is working with providers to offer appointments in an attempt to cut down on the lengthy wait times.

How does contact tracing work?

Once someone tests positive for monkeypox, a health department employee will call for information used in contact tracing. The contract tracing is done “in a way that protects your privacy” and CDPH will notify close contacts without sharing your name, Dr. Allison Arwady said.

Additionally, a website called tellyourpartner.org allows people to anonymously notify intimate contacts. The platform is typically used for sexually transmitted infections, and while monkeypox is not just an STI it is primarily spreading through sexual or intimate contact.

Arwady stressed the importance of individuals getting contact information for sexual partners.

What are the risks in attending large events?

Overall risk is low, but monkeypox is circulating in Chicago, said a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Health officials said during a webinar last month the level of risk can be looked at as a continuum. For example, outdoor events are less risky than crowded indoor spaces where skin-to-skin contact is more likely.

Clubs, raves, saunas, sex parties and other events can increase one’s risk of exposure, especially if people are wearing less clothing.

If I’m going to a bar, nightclub or an outdoor festival, what precautions should I take?

Health officials suggest wearing as much clothing as possible to avoid direct, skin-to-skin contact.

“We have a disease where a very readily available intervention is a layer of clothing,” said Massimo Pacilli, a deputy commissioner at the Chicago Department of Public Health. “I’m aware that not all settings are, you know, suited to this, but it’s certainly readily available.”

People should also avoid sharing items like water bottles and cigarettes.

Can I get monkeypox from trying on clothes at a store?

Monkeypox has been occasionally spread through sharing items like bedding or towels with people with active sores, but Dr. Allison Arwady said “it is absolutely fine to try on clothes.”

“I do not have a high concern, given the number of cases that we have, general risk factors, etc., that trying on clothes would be a source of spreading MPV,” she said. “That is not a worry for me at all at the moment.”

Do condoms prevent the spread of the virus?

The CDC recommends those who have monkeypox or think they might to reduce skin-to-skin contact as much as possible. If the rash is confined to the genitals or anus, condoms may help, but condoms alone “are likely not enough to prevent monkeypox.”

“If you or a partner has monkeypox, the best way to protect yourself and others is to avoid sex of any kind (oral, anal, vaginal) and do not kiss or touch each other’s bodies while you are sick, especially with any rash,” according to the CDC. “Do not share things like towels, fetish gear, sex toys and toothbrushes.”

Is monkeypox an STI?

Monkeypox isn’t a sexually transmitted disease in the classic sense because it isn’t spread in the semen or vaginal fluids, Dr. Robert Murphy, a professor of infectious diseases at Northwestern University, said in a news release. Instead, the virus spreads through close physical contact with lesions.

Who can get monkeypox?

Anyone who lives with or has close contact with someone who has monkeypox, or has regular contact with animals that may be infected, according to the World Health Organization.

Prior vaccination against smallpox can provide some protection against monkeypox, but smallpox vaccination generally stopped after the virus was eradicated in 1980.

What if officials cannot stop the spread of the virus in Chicago and other major cities?

Some health experts worry that failing to contain the virus could result in it mutating and becoming a bigger threat.

A 2008 study warned that if monkeypox were introduced to an unvaccinated population, the virus could capitalize on the situation and become an epidemic, NPR reported.

Has Chicago seen outbreaks of monkeypox before?

While there have been cases of monkeypox in the past, the virus is typically rare. The most recent significant outbreak was in 2003 when about 50 people in Midwestern states, including Illinois, were infected as a result of contact with animals that had been imported, according to CDC.

And, as recently as last year, Chicago public health officials have monitored passengers on the same flight as somebody with monkeypox symptoms.

“We do occasionally see people develop this infection that have either traveled or have had contact with animals; this is just a new version, what we’re seeing right now,” said Dr. Janna Kerins, a CDPH medical director, noting that the current outbreak is spreading person-to-person rather than through animals.

Health officials have known about monkeypox since the 1950s, according to the CDC.

What does it mean that monkeypox is a public health emergency?

Illinois and California declared monkeypox a public health emergency on Aug. 1, and New York did the same in July. The proclamation allows the Illinois Department of Public Health to better coordinate logistics across state agencies. It also helps the state get assistance distributing vaccines and to better coordinate help from the federal government.

Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers. Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @biancacseke1.