Monkeypox: “Hey COVID. Hold My Beer.”

Kollman & Saucier
Kollman & Saucier

The recent outbreak of monkeypox creates an issue for employers whose employees, especially healthcare workers, are more susceptible to contracting the virus.

First, what is monkeypox?  Per the CDC, monkeypox is a rare disease caused by infection with the monkeypox virus.  The monkeypox virus is part of the same family of viruses as variola virus, the virus that causes smallpox. Monkeypox symptoms are similar to smallpox symptoms, but milder, and monkeypox is rarely fatal.  Monkeypox is not related to chickenpox.

Monkeypox was discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research.  Despite being named “monkeypox,” the source of the disease remains unknown.  African rodents and non-human primates (like monkeys) might harbor the virus and infect people.

The first human case of monkeypox was recorded in 1970.  Prior to the 2022 outbreak, monkeypox had been reported in several central and western African countries. Previously, almost all monkeypox cases in people outside of Africa were linked to international travel to countries where the disease commonly occurs or through imported animals. 

As of August 17, there were 13,517 confirmed cases in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with Wyoming being the only state thus far without a reported case.  California and New York report the highest numbers, both around 2500 cases.  The rate of infection is increasing each day.  Globally, there are nearly 40,000 cases.

Monkeypox is spread through close contact (sexual contact; hugging; massage; kissing; prolonged face-to-face contact) with someone who has symptoms, as well as by touching items that have touched the infectious rash or body fluids, like unwashed bedding and towels, or sharing cups and plates that came in contact with the infectious rash or body fluids.  It is not transmitted through casual, brief conversations or walking by someone in a grocery store, according to the California Department of Public Health, which has a monkeypox communications toolkit.

The Mayo Clinic confirms the general public is not at high risk of contracting the virus but employers should be aware of how it is spread and preventive measures they can take, such as providing protective gear (gloves and gowns) to workers who touch skin directly or handled soiled linens.

Symptoms of monkeypox include:

  • Fever
  • Skin rash (the tell-tale symptom, it seems)
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches and backaches
  • Chills
  • Tiredness
  • Swollen lymph nodes

While many of the cases reported in the U.S. have been among men who have sex with men, the CDC is making clear that anyone can get monkeypox regardless of a patient’s travel history, gender identity or sexual orientation.

An employee who is diagnosed with monkeypox should isolate at home until cleared by a local public health authority, and the CDC is advising anyone with a new rash or any symptoms of monkeypox to contact their health care provider.  Individuals who are exposed to a known case should be informed, as they are recommended to receive a vaccine for post-exposure prophylaxis.  Vaccines given within 4 days of the exposure often prevent infection, and those given within 14 days can prevent severe illness. Monkeypox symptoms typically start within 3 weeks after an individual is exposed to the virus, and last two to four weeks.  As of now, employers are not able to require or request vaccinations in higher risk positions because the vaccine is in such short supply.

Assuming that monkeypox takes a similar trajectory as COVID-19, employers will likely soon find themselves needing to handle: employee education, preventing infection in the workplace; discrimination issues based on gender identity, race or national origin; adjustments to sick leave and telework policies as may be warranted, among other issues.  As with COVID-19, our attorneys are ready to assist our clients with whatever may come from monkeypox’s impact in the workplace.


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