Monkeypox confirmed in Chattanooga area as virus spreads rapidly across U.S.

FILE - This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows mature, oval-shaped monkeypox virions, left, and spherical immature virions, right, obtained from a sample of human skin associated with the 2003 prairie dog outbreak. U.S. health officials are expanding the group of people recommended to get vaccinated against the monkeypox virus. They also say they are providing more monkeypox vaccine, working to expand testing, and taking other steps to try to get ahead of the outbreak. (Cynthia S. Goldsmith, Russell Regner/CDC via AP, file)

At least three Hamilton County residents have tested positive for monkeypox, representing the first confirmed Chattanooga-area cases in an unprecedented outbreak of the virus that until May was rarely reported in the United States.

Tennessee now has confirmed 32 cases - up from three roughly three weeks ago - while Georgia has 430 confirmed cases and Alabama 15, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Hamilton County Health Department announced the first local cases Tuesday in a news release, stating that staff members are investigating the cases and working to alert close contacts who might have been exposed.

In an emailed response to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Health Department spokeswoman Joeli Poole said some of the infected individuals have a travel history, and the investigation process is ongoing. It has not yet been determined whether the cases are connected and whether the individuals contracted the virus in Hamilton County, she said.

Poole declined to share any additional patient information or demographics, citing privacy requirements because there are fewer than 10 cases.

(READ MORE: Monkeypox cases are 'skyrocketing' in Georgia and across the country, public health experts say)

Monkeypox is a potentially serious viral illness that typically begins with flu-like symptoms and swelling of the lymph nodes that progresses to a rash on the face and body. Though rarely fatal, infections can last up to four weeks, and the bumps that develop from the rash are painful.

Before the outbreak, cases in the U.S. were primarily associated with international travel to parts of Central and West Africa, where the virus is established and normally circulates.

At least 76 nations that historically haven't reported monkeypox have done so since May, prompting the World Health Organization to dub the virus a global health emergency on July 23.

As of Tuesday, 5,811 cases have been confirmed in the U.S., according to the CDC. New York is the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, with 1,390 confirmed cases as of Tuesday.

The bulk of those cases reside in New York City, prompting state official to declare monkeypox a public health emergency on Saturday, according to the Associated Press. Last week, San Francisco's mayor announced a state of emergency there due to surging cases.

California has the second-most monkeypox cases in the U.S., with 827 as of Tuesday, according to the CDC.

Dr. Stephen Miller, Hamilton County Health Department health officer, said in Tuesday's news release that local public health officials have been anticipating and preparing for monkeypox to reach the community.

"Overall, the risk to our population is low, but be mindful that monkeypox is a disease that can affect any individual," Miller said.

Monkeypox transmission occurs mainly through direct physical contact with an infected person or by touching objects, fabrics and surfaces used by someone with the virus. It can also spread through close contact with respiratory fluid.

Infection may begin with fever, headache, muscle aches and fatigue, and symptoms usually appear within three weeks of exposure, health officials say.

Though vaccines are available at no cost, the Hamilton County Health Department is only providing them to people who have been in close contact with or exposed to an infected person, citing limited supply and CDC guidelines.

Poole declined to say how many vaccines the department has on hand, how many have been used so far and when more vaccines will arrive.

"We closely monitor our vaccine supply and maintain communication with the (Tennessee Department of Health) regarding supply needs," she said.

Although the illness typically resolves on its own, people who suspect they're infected or who believe they were exposed to someone with monkeypox should seek medical treatment to be tested and isolate at home until the illness runs its course.

People seeking vaccination who believe they were exposed can call the Health Department hotline at 423-209-8383.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.