How colleges are bracing for a new public health threat: monkeypox

How colleges are bracing for a new public health threat: monkeypox

Andrea Connor has become the “accidental COVID czar” of Lake Forest College, a small school north of Chicago where she serves as student principal.

“When COVID started, our crisis management team somehow multiplied,” he says.

Now, he relies on the same team to respond to a new health threat: monkeypox.

“There’s a lot of fear, a lot of worry,” Connor says. “So we want to educate people.” His team is putting together a guide detailing the signs and symptoms of monkeypox and what a student should do if he thinks he may be infected. Monkeypox is far less contagious than COVID-19, but Connor says it’s a school’s job to be prepared.

Ahead of the new school year, colleges across the country are repurposing tools developed during the pandemic to tackle the monkeypox outbreak, which the White House recently declared a health emergency. It’s a different virus, with different risks, and universities have to adapt, says Dr. Lindsey Mortenson of the American College Health Association (ACHA).

“Many colleges and universities are thinking about ‘how can we move on at the institutional level?” Mortenson says. “‘How do we take all of these informed public health practices and apply them in a different context?’ ”

The risk of contracting monkeypox is low, but colleges are starting to see cases

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of contracting monkeypox in the United States is “deemed low”. More than 7,000 cases have been confirmed in the United States as of Thursday, though experts say the number is likely higher due to testing limitations.

Monkeypox is most often associated with a rash that can appear anywhere on the body, including the face, feet, hands, genitals, and inside the mouth, the CDC says. But symptoms can also include fever, headache, and muscle aches.

The virus is spread through physical contact with the monkeypox rash, and the vast majority of people affected by the current outbreak seem to get it through sexual contact. The cases have largely been concentrated in the gay and queer community, mainly among men who have sex with men. But the CDC says sexual contact isn’t the only way the virus can spread. It is possible that close face-to-face contact or indirect contact with the rash will result in transmission, although data shows this is less common.

As a result, experts say, everyone should pay attention to the virus.

“No outbreak remains limited to just one social network,” says Dr. Jay Varma, epidemiologist at Weill Cornell Medical College. He adds that although the virus has concentrated in the gay and queer community, “there is no biological reason why it cannot spread to other groups.”

On college campuses, Varma says, areas to look out for are where students come into close physical contact with each other’s skin, including locker rooms, gyms, or even theater groups.

The virus has already appeared on some university campuses. Georgetown University in Washington, DC, the University of Texas at Austin, and West Chester University in Pennsylvania told NPR they had at least one confirmed case over the summer.

At West Chester University, spokesperson Nancy Gainer says, “The student is in solitary confinement and continues to do very well. There is a plan in place for them to finish the distance class and the student will not be returning to campus for the summer semester. . ”

On July 28, ACHA, which represents over 700 higher education institutions, emailed its members with basic information on monkeypox, but a more detailed guide is still underway, says Rachel Mack. , Director of Communications of the ACHA. She says the ACHA is now coordinating with the CDC to schedule a webinar and are also creating an FAQ document to share with members.

“All of this is in the early stages and we are putting together a team of experts to help finalize the topics that are of prime importance to [institutions of higher education]”says Mack, in an email to NPR.” Our goal is to respond to the needs of our members and meet those needs as quickly as possible.

Monkeypox requires a longer isolation period than the coronavirus

COVID-19 is generally contagious for less than 10 days, but a monkeypox infection can last a few weeks. This means that a student who contracts the virus may have to isolate themselves for a significant portion of the semester.

“This represents a very important challenge for the individual, who has to endure that level of isolation, as well as for the university, which has to make arrangements to support it,” says Varma.

One challenge is that most colleges have returned to in-person education after moving completely remote in 2020. The schools told NPR they are still determining what distance learning will look like for students in isolation.

At the University of California, Irvine, where all classes return in person, students in isolation work directly with their faculty to decide how to learn from a distance, says David Souleles, who leads the school’s COVID-19 response team. . “Instructors are encouraged to have a plan for such events in advance,” he explains.

When it comes to where is it students with monkeypox would isolate themselves, there is enormous variability between colleges, even in places where schools had accommodation reserved for students who tested positive for COVID.

“Some are keeping isolation quarters for COVID, or any infectious disease it may be needed for,” Mortenson says. “Others have completely abandoned their inventory.”

At Lake Forest College, Andrea Connor is in charge of housing logistics and says the school intends to help students isolate themselves if they test positive for monkeypox. They will also help students meet basic needs, including meals and laundry.

At West Chester University, which serves more than 17,000 commuters and residential students, Gainer says the school is “committed to following CDC guidelines and having students [who test positive for monkeypox] self-isolate “.

In Ithaca, NY, at Cornell University, the campus health unit has published an online resource with information on monkeypox. The school is “developing testing, treatment and isolation protocols for those affected,” says Rebecca Valli, director of media relations. “We are also considering the potential academic impacts and accommodations that may arise.”

Students are concerned about the monkeypox stigma

Since 99% of cases in the United States are related to sexual contact between males, according to the WHO, there is a growing concern about stigma and prejudice against the LGBTQ community.

Such bias can have negative public health consequences if it prevents an infected person from seeking treatment and informing their close contacts about potential exposure, an important step to mitigate the spread.

Student Liz Cortes, who co-leads the Queer and Trans Student Alliance at UT Austin, says she is frustrated by the ongoing stigma and is waiting to see if the university will address it. If the school fails, “we would make it a priority to work with public health officials to provide accurate information and address misconceptions about the virus and our community,” Cortes told NPR in an email.

UT Austin did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how it intends to address the stigma concerns. But the school’s health services website states that “anyone can get monkeypox, regardless of age or sex.”

Some universities are working with student groups to coordinate education and response efforts. At UC Irvine, Souleles says the school has convened a working group that includes representatives from the LGBT Resource Center. “We are also consulting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guide on reducing stigma in monkeypox communication,” she says.

Student privacy is another concern. In many larger schools, including UT Austin, University of Michigan, and UC Irvine, health centers are equipped to test students for monkeypox. But other schools, including Lake Forest, don’t currently have the resources for testing.

Lake Forest students have to go off campus to take the test at one of five nearby labs, says Andrea Connor. One such lab is a sexually transmitted disease clinic, and if a student is tested there, their insurance might bill it as a test for a sexually transmitted infection, even if monkeypox isn’t considered an STI, he says. Connor.

“Some members of our community wouldn’t want their parents to see this on their insurance,” Connor explains. “So there are a lot of layers there.”

However, Connor says he remains confident about the fall semester.

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