One by one, cases of the painful viral infection popped up this summer at George Washington, Georgetown and American universities. Now these schools in the nation’s capital and others across the country are warning their communities to be on guard against the potential spread of monkeypox in the coming weeks when students return to campus for the fall term.
The public health campaigns centered on monkeypox come as colleges and universities are managing the third back-to-school season shadowed by the coronavirus pandemic. Students and educators are eager for normalcy after the disruptions of the previous two years.
That could complicate efforts to combat a threat much different from covid-19. Health authorities say monkeypox spreads through intimate contact, often skin to skin, including but not limited to sexual encounters. Authorities also warn of possible spread through respiratory secretions or touching the bedding or towels used by someone who is infected.
All of which sounds like circumstances that could occur in college dormitories, on dance floors or in other campus spaces.
“Now we have to manage two public health emergencies all at once,” said Ranit Mishori, vice president and chief public health officer at Georgetown. “It’s very difficult for staff, students and faculty.”
Mishori said Georgetown officials know of two recent cases within their community. GWU and AU officials also have confirmed cases. The news site Inside Higher Ed reported this month that cases have emerged as well at the University of Texas at Austin, and West Chester and Bucknell universities, both in Pennsylvania.
Gregory L. Fenves, president of Emory University, said the campus in Atlanta is preparing for the new health threat and mindful that the coronavirus pandemic has not disappeared. “People are tired of covid,” he said. “This issue of public health fatigue is a real one.”
One of the most sensitive issues colleges face is how to communicate about an outbreak that so far in the United States has spread mainly among men who have sex with other men. “We don’t want to stigmatize sexual behavior,” said Lynn R. Goldman, dean of public health at GWU. She noted that monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted disease, and condoms don’t guard against it.
The American College Health Association said in a statement: “Anyone can get monkeypox, so campuses should communicate it as a public health concern for all; however, campus communications can be tailored to different audiences to be most effective. No matter the audience, it is important that communications convey compassion, reduce stigma and address equity.”
Mishori said schools should brief athletes, coaches, custodians and others about the virus. “We recognize that anybody and everybody is at risk, regardless of gender or sexual orientation,” she said.
In recent days, universities have cautioned communities about how the virus spreads, the signs of infection — painful rashes that appear like pimples or blisters, then scabs — and the degree of the threat it poses.
“Currently, the risk of monkeypox transmission on campus is very low and with proper safety precautions, there is no need for elevated concern,” David S. Reitman, the medical director of the AU student health center, wrote in an Aug. 8 message to the community. “Monkeypox is less contagious and less likely to result in severe illness or death than COVID-19.” The possibility of infection in classroom settings and normal daily activities is low, Reitman wrote.
Spyridon S. Marinopoulos, chief medical officer of the University of Maryland, urged people on campus on Aug. 9 to take “everyday precautions” to protect themselves, such as regular handwashing and avoiding “close, skin-to-skin contact with people who have a rash that looks like monkeypox.”
Mass vaccination, a solution many universities embraced to protect against the coronavirus, is not yet under consideration with monkeypox. Supplies of the monkeypox vaccine are limited, and health authorities are giving priority to high-risk individuals.
Campus health centers will be alert to what monkeypox rashes look like, officials say, and will arrange for viral testing if students need it. The turnaround time to get results could be up to five days, Mishori said, and students with suspected cases would be required to isolate until learning whether they are infected.
Those with confirmed infections would be required to isolate further, Mishori said, possibly two weeks or longer. Depending on the configuration of dorm beds and rooms, that could mean an infected student would move temporarily into a hotel room on Georgetown’s campus.
Those are among the unwelcome scenarios that colleges and universities everywhere are gaming out as the fall term approaches.
“We’re all kind of on-deck right now in terms of thinking ahead — what are we going to do if?” said Goldman of GWU. “What if, what if, what if?”