Monkeypox officially was tabbed a public health emergency in the United States on Thursday. With cases more than quadrupling in the past few weeks and now surpassing 6,600, the Biden Administration said it is increasing efforts to get more vaccines available to try to stop the blistering disease.
The virus, similar to smallpox and noted for its unpleasant rashes and sores, is not only spreading quickly across cities such as New York and San Francisco but is also expected to infiltrate colleges and universities as they open for the 2022-23 academic year. Bucknell University, in fact, already has reported its first confirmed case. The potential for outbreaks—of one virus or the other—is a possibility as institutions ramp up operations with more relaxed protocols for the fall. So, caution is being advised by public health leaders.
“Students are going to be excited to return to campus after two long years of the pandemic and they’re going to be eager to meet new friends,” says Dr. Rachel Cox, assistant professor at the MGH Institute of Health Professions and a specialist in infectious disease and epidemiology. “They will likely be sexually active, sharing dorm rooms, sharing food and drinks. We know that’s how monkeypox potentially spreads—through close contact. Colleges should be preparing now for the possibility that this could be a problem if monkeypox continues to spread at the rate it’s spreading.”
Some institutions and agencies are already doing that. The University of California at Riverside sent a letter out to students on Wednesday highlighting how it both plans to address cases and also what students should be doing to prepare for that inevitable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated guidance for institutions both in congregate settings and gatherings.
While its severity is certainly not presenting in the same way as COVID-19, it has the potential to be disruptive, at the least. Though the vast majority of cases resolve themselves after a few weeks and until now have occurred among gay and bisexual men, anyone can get it and it can be extremely uncomfortable. While there is a vaccine similar to the one for smallpox to treat the virus, it is typically administered after symptoms have presented, and the U.S. does not currently have enough supply. Most of those who are getting the vaccine are those who have the most serious cases. The Biden Administration is said to be ordering hundreds of thousands more doses though the process has been slow. Getting them to states and individual health departments will take time.
So for colleges and health teams who may be shorthanded when it comes to being able to triage, readying for a potential wave of cases is critical, as it has been with COVID. And because of the nature of monkeypox to present visible hallmarks, it is important that messaging exudes empathy.
“Colleges need to be prepared with targeted vaccination clinics, for education, for explaining to students what to do if they think they’re sick or been exposed to someone who has symptoms,” Cox says. “They need to create a culture that’s free of stigma, where students feel comfortable if they have symptoms and that they know they’ll be treated with dignity and respect.”
Cox says there are numerous strategies colleges can take to prevent cases from spiraling out of control, including some measures that were instituted over the past two years of the pandemic. She recommends:
- Enhanced cleaning and sanitation
- Discussing healthy hygiene habits with students
- Washing hands and not sharing utensils, drinks, towels and bedding
- Educating students about monkeypox
- Ensuring on-site clinicians can triage and treat monkeypox cases
- Having isolation spaces for monkeypox cases
- Working with the state to access vaccines and medications if outbreaks continue to spread
UC Riverside is also making available mental health counselors to students, understanding that “news of a new infectious disease on top of the last few years of the COVID-19 pandemic can be concerning and result in feelings of anxiousness and uncertainty.” Education is one of the keys. A Q&A to students like this one from Drexel University can help ease concerns and tamp down rumors.
“It’s important we look at this as though we are preparing for a storm,” Cox said. “We need to have a plan in place for this.”