Courtesy of Lake Forest College
Andrea Connor has become “the accidental COVID Czar” of Lake Forest College, a small school north of Chicago where she is dean of students.
“When COVID started, our crisis management team kind of multiplied,” she says.
Today, it relies on this 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 developing guidance detailing the signs and symptoms of monkeypox, and what a student should do if they think they might 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 the tools they’ve 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 asking ‘how do we turn the page institutionally?’ says Mortenson. “’How do we take all these wise public health practices and apply them in a different setting?’ ”
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 “considered to be low”. More than 7,000 cases were confirmed in the United States on Thursday, although experts say that number is likely higher due to testing limitations.
Monkeypox is most commonly associated with a rash that can appear anywhere on the body, including the face, feet, hands, genitals and inside the mouth, according to the CDC. 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 appear to catch it through sexual contact. Cases have been largely concentrated in the gay and queer community, primarily among men who have sex with men. But the CDC says sexual contact isn’t the only way the virus spreads. It is possible that close face-to-face contact or indirect contact with the rash could lead to transmission, although data shows this is less common.
As a result, experts say, everyone should pay attention to the virus.
“No epidemic remains confined to a single 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 is no biological reason why it shouldn’t spread to other groups.”
On college campuses, Varma says, the areas to watch out for are where students come into close physical contact with each other’s skin, including locker rooms, gymnasiums 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 all told NPR they had at least one confirmed case over the summer.
At West Chester University, spokesperson Nancy Gainer said: “The student is isolated and continues to do very well. There is a plan in place for him to complete his coursework remotely, and the student will not be returning to campus for the summer term.”
On July 28, the ACHA, which represents more than 700 higher education institutions, sent an email to its members with basic information about monkeypox, but more detailed advice is still in progress, says Rachel Mack , Director of Communications at ACHA. She says the ACHA is now coordinating with the CDC to schedule a webinar, and they are also creating an FAQ document to share with members.
“This is all in its infancy and we are currently assembling a team of experts to help finalize the topics that are of paramount importance to [institutions of higher education]”, explains Mack, in an email to NPR. “Our goal is to meet the needs of our members and to meet those needs as quickly as possible.
Monkeypox requires a longer period of isolation than the 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.
“It presents a very significant challenge for the individual, who has to endure this level of isolation, as well as for the university, which has to make arrangements to support this,” Varma said.
One of the challenges is that most colleges have returned to in-person instruction after going completely remote in 2020. Schools told NPR they are still determining what learning will look like in distance for isolated students.
At the University of California, Irvine, where all classes are back in person, isolated students are working directly with their faculty members to decide how to learn remotely, says David Souleles, who leads the COVID response team. -19 from school. “Instructors are encouraged to have a plan for such events in advance,” he explains.
When it comes to where students with monkeypox would self-isolate, there is huge variability between colleges, even in places where schools had dedicated housing for students who tested positive for COVID.
“Some are keeping isolation accommodations for COVID, or for any infectious diseases they might be needed for,” Mortenson says. “Others have completely given up on their inventory.”
At Lake Forest College, Andrea Connor is working on housing logistics, and she says the school plans to help students self-isolate if they test positive for monkeypox. They will also help students meet their basic needs, including meals and laundry.
At West Chester University, which serves more than 17,000 suburban and residence students, Gainer says the school is “committed to following CDC guidelines and ensuring that students [who test positive for monkeypox] isolate yourself.”
In Ithaca, NY, 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 considering potential academic impacts and accommodations that may arise.”
Students worry about monkeypox stigma
Because 99% of cases in the United States are linked to sexual contact between men, according to the WHO, there is 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 notifying close contacts of potential exposure, an important step in mitigating the spread.
Student Liz Cortes, who co-directs the Queer and Trans Student Alliance at UT Austin, says she’s frustrated with the lingering stigma and is waiting to see if the university will fix 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 told NPR in an email. .
UT Austin did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how it intends to address concerns about stigma. But the school’s health services website says “anyone can get monkeypox, regardless of age or gender.”
Some universities work with student groups to coordinate education and intervention efforts. At UC Irvine, Souleles says the school convened a task force that includes representatives from the LGBT Resource Center. “We are also consulting the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on reducing stigma in communication about monkeypox,” he says.
Student privacy is another concern. At many top 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, currently lack the resources for testing.
Lake Forest students must leave campus to get tested at one of five nearby labs, says Andrea Connor. One of those labs is an STI clinic, and if a student gets tested there, their insurance might bill it as a test for a sexually transmitted infection, even though monkeypox isn’t considered an STI. Connor said.
“Some in our community wouldn’t want their parents to see this on their insurance,” Connor says. “So there are a lot of layers there.”
Still, Connor says she remains hopeful for the fall semester.