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

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Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Illinois is ready to help students isolate if they test positive for monkeypox.

Contributed by Lake Forest College


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Contributed by Lake Forest College


Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Illinois is ready to help students isolate if they test positive for monkeypox.

Contributed by Lake Forest College

Andrea Connor became the “accidental COVID king” at Lake Forest College, a small school north of Chicago where she serves as dean of students.

“When COVID started, our crisis management team sort of multiplied,” she says.

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

“A lot of fear, a lot of anxiety,” Connor says. “So we want to educate people.” Her team is compiling a guide detailing the signs and symptoms of monkeypox and what a student should do if they suspect they may be infected. Monkeypox is far less contagious than COVID-19, but Connor says it’s up to the school to prepare for it.

Ahead of the new academic year, colleges across the country are repurposing tools they developed during the pandemic to fight the monkeypox outbreak 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 about how do we institutionally turn the page?” Mortenson says. “How do we take all these public health-based methods and apply them in a different context?” ”

Monkeypox risk 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 US is “considered low”. More than 7,000 cases have been confirmed in the US as of Thursday, though experts say the number is likely higher due to testing restrictions.

The CDC reports that monkeypox is most commonly associated with a rash that can appear anywhere on the body, including the face, feet, hands, genitals, and mouth. 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 are sexually infected. The cases were mostly concentrated in the gay and homosexual community, mostly among men who have sex with men. But CDC says sexual contact is not the only way the virus is spread. Close face-to-face contact or indirect contact with the rash can result in transmission, although evidence suggests this is less common.

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

“No outbreak is limited to any one social network,” says Dr. Jay Varma, an epidemiologist at the Weill Cornell Medical College. He adds that although the virus has been concentrated in the gay and homosexual community, “there is no biological reason why it could not have spread to other groups.”

On college campuses, Varma says, watch out for places where students come into close physical contact with each other’s skin, including locker rooms, gyms or even theater clubs.

The virus has already appeared on some college 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 during the summer.

West Chester University spokeswoman Nancy Gainer says: “The student is in isolation and continues to study very well. They have a plan whereby they can finish classes remotely without the student returning to campus for the summer semester. “

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

“This is all in its early stages and right now we are assembling a team of experts to help refine the topics that are of paramount importance to [institutions of higher education]”Mack says in an email to NPR. “Our goal is to be responsive to our members’ needs and meet those needs as quickly as possible.”

Monkeypox requires a longer isolation period than coronavirus

COVID-19 is usually contagious for less than 10 days, but monkeypox infection can last several weeks. This means that a student who has contracted the virus may be required to isolate for a significant portion of the semester.

“This presents a very serious challenge for the individual who has to put up with this level of isolation, and also for the university, which must take steps to support it,” says Varma.

One problem is that most colleges switched to face-to-face teaching after the full transition to distance learning in 2020. Schools have told NPR that they are still determining what distance learning will look like for students in isolation.

At UC Irvine, where all classes are again in-person, students in isolation are working directly with their faculty to decide how to study remotely, says David Souleles, the school’s COVID-19 response team leader. “Instructors are advised to plan ahead for such occasions,” he explains.

When it comes to where students with monkeypox will be isolated, there are huge differences between colleges, even in places where schools have allocated housing for students who test positive for COVID.

“Some are keeping the isolation room for COVID or other infectious diseases that might need it,” says Mortenson. “Others have given up their inventory entirely.”

At Lake Forest College, Andrea Connor handles housing logistics, and she says the school plans to help students isolate if they test positive for monkeypox. They will also help students meet basic needs, including food and laundry.

Gainer says that at West Chester University, which serves more than 17,000 commuter and residential students, the school is “committed to following CDC guidelines and student engagement. [who test positive for monkeypox] self-isolate.”

In Ithaca, New York, at Cornell University, the campus health department published Internet 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 possible academic implications and the accommodations that may arise.”

Students concerned about monkeypox stigma

Since 99% of cases in the United States are associated with sexual intercourse between men, according to WHOThere is growing concern about stigma and prejudice against the LGBT community.

This bias can have negative public health implications if it prevents an infected person from seeking treatment and informing their close contacts of potential exposure, an important step in reducing spread.

Student Liz Cortez, who leads the Queer and Transgender Students Alliance at UT Austin, says they are frustrated by the ongoing stigma and are waiting to see if the university will address the issue. If the school fails to do so, “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 intends to address stigma. But school health services Web site states that “anyone can get monkeypox, regardless of age or sex.”

Some universities work with student groups to coordinate learning and response efforts. According to Souleles, a working group was convened at the University of California, Irvine, which included representatives from the LGBT Resource Center. “We’re also consulting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for reducing stigma in dealing with monkeypox,” he says.

Student privacy is another concern. Many major schools, including UT Austin, the University of Michigan and the University of California, Irvine, have health centers equipped to test students for monkeypox. But other schools, including Lake Forest, don’t have testing resources right now.

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

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

However, Connor says she is still hopeful for the fall semester.



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