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How colleges prepare for monkeypox: NPR

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

Courtesy of Lake Forest College


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Courtesy of Lake Forest College

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

Courtesy of Lake Forest College

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

“When COVID started, our crisis management team got bigger,” she says.

Now she’s relying 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.” 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 up to the school to prepare.

Ahead of the new school year, colleges across the country are repurposing tools they developed during the pandemic to combat the monkeypox outbreak that 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 turn the institutional page?” Mortenson says. “How can we take all these health practices and apply them in a different context?” ”

The risk of contracting monkeypox is small, but cases are starting to appear in colleges

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of monkeypox infection in the US is “considered low.” More than 7,000 cases have been confirmed in the US as of Thursday, although experts say that number is likely higher due to testing restrictions.

Monkeypox is most often associated with a rash that can appear anywhere on the body, including the face, legs, arms, genitals and mouth, according to the CDC. But symptoms can also include fever, headache and muscle aches.

The virus is spread through physical contact with monkeypox rashes, and the vast majority of people affected by the current outbreak appear to have contracted it through sexual contact. Cases have been largely concentrated in the gay and queer communities, primarily among men who have sex with men. But CDC says sexual contact is not the only way the virus spreads. It is possible that 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 confined to one social network,” says Dr. Jay Varma, an epidemiologist at Weill Cornell Medical College. He adds that while the virus is concentrated in the gay and queer community, “there’s no biological reason it can’t spread to other groups.”

On college campuses, Varma says, surveillance sites are places 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, D.C., the University of Texas at Austin and West Chester University in Pennsylvania all told NPR there was 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 for them to complete the class remotely and the student will not return to campus for the summer semester.”

ACHA, which represents more than 700 institutions of higher education, sent a letter to its members on July 28 with basic information about monkeypox, but more detailed guidance is still being developed, says Rachel Mack, ACHA’s director of communications. She says ACHA is now coordinating with CDC to schedule the webinar, and they are also creating an FAQ document to share with attendees.

“This is all in the early stages and we are currently assembling a team of experts to help finalize 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 the needs of our members and meet those needs as quickly as possible.”

Monkey pox requires a longer isolation period than the coronavirus

COVID-19 is usually contagious for less than 10 days, but monkeypox can last several weeks. This means that a student who contracts the virus may need to be isolated for a large part of the semester.

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

One of the challenges is that most colleges have it returned to full-time study after full distance learning in 2020. Schools told NPR they are still determining what distance learning will look like for students in isolation.

At UC Irvine, where all classes are once again in-person, students in isolation are 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 advised to make a plan in advance for such cases,” he explains.

When it comes to where students with monkeypox will be isolated, there is wide variation among colleges, even where schools have made accommodations for students who have tested positive for COVID.

“Some keep an isolation room for COVID or whatever infectious disease they might need it for,” says Mortenson. “Others have completely abandoned their inventory.”

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

At West Chester University, which serves more than 17,000 commuter and boarding students, Gainer says the school is “trying to follow CDC guidelines and have students [who test positive for monkeypox] to self-isolate.”

In Ithaca, New York, Cornell University’s campus health department released online resource with information on monkey pox. The school is “developing testing, treatment and isolation protocols for victims,” ​​says Rebecca Vallee, director of media relations. “We also look at the potential academic implications and adjustments that may occur.”

Students are concerned about the stigma of monkeypox

Because 99% of cases in the US are related to sexual contact between men, according to World Health Organizationthere is there is growing concern about stigmaand 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 of potential exposure, an important step in reducing transmission.

Student Liz Cortez, who leads the UT Austin Queer and Trans Student Alliance, says they are frustrated by the ongoing stigma and are waiting to see if the university will address the issue. If the school can’t, “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 plans to address the stigma concern. But the medical services of the school website states that “anyone can contract monkeypox, regardless of age or sex.”

Some universities are partnering with student groups to coordinate learning and response. At UC Irvine, the school has convened a task force that includes representatives from the LGBT Resource Center, Suleles says. “We’re also consulting with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations to reduce the stigma associated with monkeypox,” he says.

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

Andrea Connor says Lake Forest students must travel off campus to get tested at one of five nearby labs. One of those labs is an STI clinic, and if a student gets tested there, their insurance may count it as testing 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 that on their insurance,” Connor explains. “So there’s a lot of layers.”

Still, Connor says he’s still hopeful for the fall semester.

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