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

How colleges are preparing 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 dean of students.

“When COVID started, the crisis management team kind of multiplied,” he says.

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

“There’s a lot of fear, a lot of concern,” Connor says. “That’s how we want to educate people.” Her team is putting together guidelines detailing the signs and symptoms of monkeypox and what a student should do if they think they might be infected. Monkeypox is much less contagious than COVID-19, but Connor says it’s the school’s job to be prepared.

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

“A lot of colleges and universities are thinking ‘how do we turn the page institutionally?’ says Mortenson. ” “How do we take all these public health-informed 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 monkeypox infection in the US is “believed to be low.” More than 7,000 cases have been confirmed in the US since Thursday, although experts say the number is likely higher due to restrictions on testing.

Monkey pox 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, headaches 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 appear to contract it through sexual contact. Cases have been heavily concentrated in the gay and queer community, primarily among men who have sex with men. But the CDC says sex isn’t the only way the virus is transmitted. It is possible that close face-to-face contact or indirect contact with the rash can lead to transmission, although data show that this is less common.

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

“No outbreak is confined to any social network,” says Dr. Jay Varma, an epidemiologist at Weill Cornell Medical College. He adds that although the virus has been concentrated in the gay and queer community, “there’s no biological reason it couldn’t spread to other groups.”

On college campuses, Varma says, the areas to watch are those 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 college campuses. Georgetown University in Washington, 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, spokeswoman Nancy Gainer says, “The student is in isolation and continues to do very well. There is a plan to complete their coursework remotely and the student will not be returning to campus for the summer.”

On July 28, the ACHA, which represents more than 700 institutions of higher education, sent an email to its members with basic information about monkeypox, but more detailed guidance is still in the works, says Rachel Mack, director of communications at the ACHA . He says the ACHA is now coordinating with the CDC to schedule a webinar, and they’re also creating an FAQ document to share with members.

“This is all in the early stages and we are currently putting together a team of experts to help finalize the issues that are of primary importance [institutions of higher education]Mack says in an email to NPR. “Our goal is to respond to the needs of our members and fill those needs as quickly as we can.”

Monkeypox requires a longer isolation period than coronavirus

COVID-19 is usually 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 need to self-isolate for a significant portion of their semester.

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

One challenge is that most colleges have returned to in-person instruction after going fully remote in 2020. 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 are back in person, students in isolation are working directly with their faculty members to decide how to learn remotely, says David Souleles, who leads the COVID response team -19 of the school. “Trainers are encouraged to have a plan for such incidents in advance,” he explains.

When it comes to where students with monkeypox would be isolated, there is huge variation among colleges, even in places where schools had earmarked housing for students who tested positive for COVID.

“Some maintain isolation housing for COVID, or for whatever infectious diseases they might need,” says Mortenson. “Others have completely abandoned their stock.”

At Lake Forest College, Andrea Connor works through housing administration and says the school plans to help isolate students 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 college and university students, Gainer says the school is “committed to following CDC guidelines and having students [who test positive for monkeypox] isolate yourself’.

In Ithaca, New York, at Cornell University, the campus health unit has published an online resource with information about monkeypox. The school is “developing testing, treatment and isolation protocols for those affected,” says Rebecca Valli, director of media relations. “We are also looking at the potential academic implications and adjustments that may occur.”

Students worry about monkeypox stigma

Because 99% of cases in the US are related to male-to-male sex, according to the WHO, there is a growing concern about stigma and prejudice against the LGBTQ community.

This bias can have negative public health consequences if it prevents an infected person from seeking treatment and informing close contacts of possible exposure, an important step in mitigating the spread.

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

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

Some universities are working with student groups to coordinate education and response efforts. At UC Irvine, Souleles says the school has convened a task force that includes representatives from the LGBT Resource Center. “We also consult guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on reducing the stigma of communicating with monkeypox,” he says.

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

Lake Forest students must leave campus to take tests at one of five nearby labs, Andrea Connor says. One of those labs is an STD clinic, and if a student gets tested there, their insurance can bill it as a test for a sexually transmitted infection, even though monkeypox isn’t considered an STD, Connor says.

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

Still, Connor says she remains optimistic about the fall semester.

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