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A familiar strategy: Contact tracing for monkeypox

"Contact tracing" became a household phrase during the COVID19 pandemic. As cases of monkeypox rise, health officials are once again using this strategy.

COLORADO, USA — More than 3,000 people have gotten at least one shot of the monkeypox vaccine in Colorado, and for the past several days, providers have been giving more than 100 doses a day.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is now publicizing monkeypox vaccine data online, similar to the state’s COVID19 vaccine data.

As of Wednesday night, CDPHE reported 3,130 people had received at least one shot of the two-dose vaccine. Some people have already gotten their second shot. A total of 3,208 doses have been administered in Colorado so far.

A total of 109 people have tested positive for monkeypox in Colorado during this nationwide outbreak.

The vaccine is one strategy to manage the virus spread. Health leaders are also using another strategy: contact tracing.

“Yes, with monkeypox we are also actively doing case investigations and contact tracing work,” said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, Colorado’s state epidemiologist.

“We identify a person who tested positive. We reach out to that individual. We ask them a series of questions about their illness, and then we ask them about their contacts. And from there, we do work to reach out to the contacts," she said. "The whole goal there is really to prevent further transmission of the virus, and stop that next generation of cases from occurring.”

Monkeypox is a different virus than COVID19, but tracking cases is mostly the same.

“So, what's different from COVID19 is going to be the route of exposure,” Herlihy explained. “This is a very different virus, transmitted in a very different way. So a very different set of questions we're asking.”

Monkeypox is spread through close, personal contact. Anyone can get monkeypox. Right now, the CDC says most cases are among men who have sex with other men.

Health officials acknowledge the contact tracing conversations can be quite sensitive.

“And because of that it’s really important for us to establish trust and rapport with these individuals, and assure them that all of the info were collecting from them is maintained with confidentiality, that their identity is protected,” Herlihy said.

A spokesman for CDPHE said there are 17 staffers currently involved in monkeypox contact tracing and case investigation work, and that public health officials have contacted more than 500 close contacts of people with monkeypox.

With COVID, contact tracing became more difficult as cases kept rising.

In California, a state with nearly 1,900 cases, health officials in San Francisco basically gave up contact tracing. Health leaders said it wasn't the most effective strategy, because many people could not or would not share names and contact information of partners.

In Colorado, Herlihy said contact tracing is just one strategy to monitor and hopefully prevent the virus from spreading. But, she says, its still a strategy worth using.

“We’re extremely grateful to the members of the public we’ve been able to talk to and gather that information, and grateful for their contribution trying to protect our community,” Herlihy said.

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