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Senators grill top health agencies on the U.S. response to monkeypox

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States has now recorded more than 22,000 monkeypox cases over the past four months. That is more than any other country in the world. But it wasn't until yesterday that Congress held its first hearing on the outbreak. Senators confronted the nation's top health agencies on the U.S. response. Here's North Carolina Republican Richard Burr.

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RICHARD BURR: Well, monkeypox is now a public health emergency. It didn't have to become one.

INSKEEP: NPR's Pien Huang has more.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: There's testing available, but patients couldn't access it. There are treatments that could help, but mountains of paperwork that deterred doctors from prescribing them. At the hearing, Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, said, it's great that the U.S. had these tools.

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PATTY MURRAY: But it's also why the stumbles in getting these tools deployed were especially frustrating and inexcusable.

HUANG: Monkeypox vaccines should have been available, but 20 million doses in the national stockpile expired, and fresh doses sat around in a European facility delayed by an FDA inspection. Federal health officials say many of these early problems have improved. Access to testing and treatments is better. And on the vaccine front...

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DAWN O'CONNELL: We now have enough vaccine supply to meet demand, so it's important that people are able to access it.

HUANG: That's Dawn O'Connell, one of the officials leading the Biden administration's response. Even though the outbreak seems to be slowing down now, there are still concerns. In recent weeks, fewer people have been showing up for testing and vaccines. Janet Hamilton is head of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists. She says the work of containing monkeypox is falling on the same public health workers who have been dealing with COVID.

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JANET HAMILTON: And while our workforce is resilient, it's also exhausted, and we're continuously asked to do more with less.

HUANG: Hamilton says public health was neglected for years before COVID, leaving the nation unprepared for the pandemic. Now, with monkeypox, we need more staff and better data systems to end this outbreak and to be more ready for the next one. Pien Huang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.