Courtesy of Lake Forest College
Andrea Connor has become the “accidental COVID king” of Lake Forest College, just north of Chicago, where she serves as dean of students.
“When COVID started, our crisis management team grew,” 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 anxiety,” Connor says. “That’s why we want to educate people.” His team is gathering information on the signs and symptoms of monkeypox and what a student should do if they think they might be infected. Monkey pox is less contagious than COVID-19, but Connor says it’s a school thing.
Ahead of the new school year, colleges across the country are repurposing tools developed by the White House to combat monkeypox during the pandemic. A public health emergency was recently declared. It’s a different virus, with different risks, and colleges will have to adapt, Dr. Lindsey Mortenson of the American College Health Association (ACHA).
“Many colleges and universities are asking, ‘How do we turn the page institutionally?'” says Mortenson. “‘How do we take these informed public health practices and apply them in a different context?'”
The risk of contracting monkeypox is low, but cases are starting to appear in colleges
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of contracting monkeypox in the United States is considered “low.” As of Thursday, more than 7,000 cases had been confirmed in the U.S., but experts said the number could be higher due to testing limitations.
Monkey pox is often associated with a rash that can appear anywhere on the body, on the face, legs, arms, 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 appear to have contracted it through sexual contact. The cases are mostly 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 spreads. There may be an indirect connection with the face or rash, but the data is less common.
Because of this, experts say that everyone should pay attention to the virus.
“No epidemic is confined to a single social network,” says Dr. Jay Varma, an epidemiologist at Weill Cornell Medical College. He added that while the virus is concentrated in the gay and queer community, “there is no biological reason for it to spread to other groups.”
On college campuses, Varma said, there are places where students come into close physical contact with each other’s skin, including locker rooms, gyms or theater groups.
The virus appeared on some college campuses. Georgetown University in Washington, the University of Texas at Austin and West Chester University in Pennsylvania told NPR there was at least one confirmed case over the summer.
West Chester University spokeswoman Nancy Gainer said, “The student is in isolation and is doing very well. They have plans to complete their classes remotely and the student will not be returning to campus for the summer.”
On July 28, the ACHA, which includes more than 700 institutions of higher education, sent an email to its members with basic information about monkeypox, but detailed guidelines are still being worked out, said Rachel Mack, ACHA’s director of communications. He said ACHA is now coordinating with the CDC to schedule the webinar and they are creating an FAQ document to share with members.
“This is all in the early stages and we are now putting together a team of experts to help us finalize the first priority topics. [institutions of higher education]”, Mack said in an email to NPR. “Our goal is to respond to the needs of our members and meet those needs as quickly as possible.”
Monkey pox takes longer than the coronavirus
COVID-19 is usually contagious for less than 10 days, but monkeypox infection can last for weeks. This means that a student infected with the virus must be isolated for a significant part of the semester.
“It’s a very important issue for a person who has to deal with this level of isolation, and for a university that has to take steps to support it,” Varma says.
One challenge is that after moving entirely to distance learning in 2020, most colleges have returned to in-person instruction. Schools told NPR they are still figuring out what distance learning will look like for isolated students.
At the University of California, Irvine, all classrooms are self-contained and students are isolated, working directly with their professors to decide how to learn remotely, said David Souleles, who heads the school’s COVID-19 response team. “Instructors are encouraged to plan ahead for these types of events,” he explains.
When it comes There If students with monkeypox are isolated, there is a big change in colleges, even where housing is reserved for students who test positive for COVID.
“Some are maintaining isolation housing for COVID or some infectious disease,” Mortenson says. “Others have completely abandoned their inventory,” he said.
At Lake Forest College, Andrea Connor is working with housing logistics, and she said the school plans to help isolate students if they test positive for monkeypox. They also help students meet their basic needs of food and laundry.
At West Chester University, which serves more than 17,000 commuters and students, Gainer says the school “is committed to following CDC guidelines and accepting students.” [who test positive for monkeypox] self-isolation”.
Cornell University’s campus health department in Ithaca, New York, has published an online resource with information on monkeypox. The school is “developing testing, treatment and isolation protocols for those affected,” said Rebecca Vallee, director of media relations. “We’re also looking at the academic impacts and accommodations that may occur.”
Students are concerned about the stigma of monkeypox
With 99% of cases in the US involving male-to-male sex, according to the WHO, there is growing concern about stigma and bias against the LGBTQ community.
This bias can have negative consequences for public health if it prevents an infected person from seeking treatment and informing their close contacts about potential exposure, an important step in reducing transmission.
Liz Cortez, a student who co-leads the Queer and Trans Student Alliance at UT Austin, said they are frustrated with the ongoing stigma and are waiting to see if the university will address it. If the school fails to comply, “we will make it a priority to work with public health officials to provide accurate information and dispel 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 stigma concerns. However, the school’s health service website states that “monkey pox can be contracted regardless of age or sex.”
Some universities are working with student groups to coordinate education and response efforts. UC Irvine says Souleles has convened a task force that includes representatives from the school’s LGBT Resource Center. “We’re also hearing advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the stigma associated with monkeypox,” he says.
Student privacy is another concern. Many large schools, including UT Austin, the University of Michigan, and UC Irvine, have health centers equipped to screen students for leprosy. But other schools, including Lake Forest, don’t currently have the resources for testing.
Lake Forest students must leave campus to get tested at one of five nearby labs, Andrea Connor said. One of those labs is an STD clinic, and if a student is tested there, their insurance may count it as a test for a sexually transmitted infection, but monkeypox is not considered an STD, Connor said.
“Some members of our community don’t want their parents to see this on their insurance,” Connor explains. – So there are many layers there.
Still, Connor says he’s not giving up hope for the fall semester.