Texas health commissioner describes state's continued response to COVID-19, monkeypox

The Texas health commissioner addressed the state's latest public health priorities as they continue to deal with COVID-19 and the rise in monkeypox cases.

Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner Dr. John W. Hellerstedt spoke at the Distinguished Speaker Series event in Austin Thursday, which is hosted by the Texas Public Health Coalition and the Texas Medical Association.

He said COVID-19 hospital cases are down right now, but the spread of monkeypox is a cause for alarm.

The state health commissioner described the most urgent public health concerns his office is facing.

"Obviously, the big story over the past 2.5 years is COVID-19," Dr. Hellerstedt said.

He added that the latest data shows COVID-19 is here to stay.

"Keep in mind viruses don't want to kill you, they want to reproduce," he explained.

There are currently 3,400 people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19.

Dr. Hellerstedt said that number is decreasing.

As of this month, some 6 million Texans have tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic.

That's not taking into account home testing.

The dominant subvariant right now is BA.5.

"They're more capable of causing infection, but less susceptible of making people seriously ill, needing the hospital, or dying," Dr. Hellerstedt said.

Another virus is also giving public health officials cause for concern.

[HOST: "What about Monkeypox in Texas?"] "Monkeypox should be taken very, very seriously," Dr. Hellerstedt answered.

RELATED: Dallas County declares emergency after 'significant increase' in monkeypox cases

Monkeypox infections are on the rise in parts of Texas.

According to the latest state data, the greatest concentration of new cases is in Dallas County.

"We really need to get it under control," Dr. Hellerstedt said.

He added that no deaths have been reported in the U.S. so far, but some patients have been hospitalized due to severe pain that can be brought on by the rash.

Health officials said the primary spread has been through close contact of sexual intercourse between men, but Dr. Hellerstedt cautions against the general public dismissing the disease based on that fact alone.

"It's very clear that surfaces can be contaminated with viable monkeypox from someone who has an active rash and has the secretions," he explained.

That includes countertops and bedding.

RELATED: Monkeypox virus: Symptoms, vaccines and testing

Dr. Hellerstedt said everyone needs to take monkeypox seriously, or it could spread fast.

"There's been some cases where household members who are not sexual partners did in fact contract monkeypox," he added.

Dr. Hellerstedt said the state recently upgraded its data collection software to better track and share infectious disease rates.