Universities and colleges across the U.S. are preparing for potential outbreaks of monkeypox this fall as students begin returning to campus amid an upswing in cases nationally, marking another public health challenge for schools to manage after years of grappling with Covid-19.
Dr. Ina Park, a professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, told Forbes that while monkeypox “does pose a risk to students,” the risk is different from that posed by Covid-19 and there is not a concern about catching the virus through everyday activity or passing someone in a corridor.
The main issue is that students live together in close quarters and gather to socialize, including hookups where close contact like kissing, skin-to-skin contact and sex might happen, Park explained, adding that the virus could also potentially be transmitted through sharing clothing or sleeping in someone else’s bed.
Numerous universities told Forbes they are in contact with local and federal health authorities to plan their responses and some schools, such as Texas A&M University, said clinicians at student health services have taken part in CDC training related to the disease.
Other universities, including Georgetown University and NYU, said student health services are able to carry out the specific testing needed to diagnose monkeypox.
Disinfecting desks or public toilets—surfaces the monkeypox virus can live on—could be one way of minimizing the risk to students, Park said, as would vaccinating students who are men or transgender people who have sex with men and expanding access to all college students when supplies permit.
Evidence-based education—especially alerting people to “the fact that monkeypox is transmitted through intimate contact”—will be crucial, Dr. Marina Klein, a professor of medicine at McGill University, told Forbes, as well as training campus health services to be on the lookout for potential monkeypox cases.
Monkeypox primarily spreads through close physical contact, as well as contact with contaminated objects and surfaces like bedding or clothing. While infections are clustered among men who have sex with men—data suggests the outbreak is largely driven by sexual activity—there have also been cases in women and children and experts told Forbes there is a risk the disease could spill over into other groups and obviously these communities are not self contained and members also attend university. Experts stress the importance of balancing the provision of accurate information about the risks of monkeypox and how it is spreading and avoiding stigmatizing the groups most affected. Campuses also face a number of unique challenges when managing disease outbreaks, the American College Health Association (ACHA), told Forbes, such as how to isolate people with limited housing available and managing the disruption a two-to-four week isolation period can cause to students. The organization said it is working to develop tailored guidance for campus settings.
What To Watch For
How universities communicate about monkeypox. Several universities told Forbes they are following guidance from local health departments and the CDC, though this advice does not specifically address university settings. Many universities have set up informational websites providing resources and guidance on the virus, while some like NYU, the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and the University of Michigan told Forbes they have also emailed staff and students about the outbreak and will provide updates as the situation evolves. Other universities have gone, or plan to go, further in communication efforts: the University of Florida told Forbes it is increasingly promoting safe sex messaging and Texas A&M University said the school is pushing out information on the disease via social media and flyers in residence halls and high-traffic areas. Guidance and protocols are sure to evolve as the outbreak does; NYU spokesperson John Beckman told Forbes the university is “closely following developments” and staff at the student health center are on “heightened alert” to respond. There are also broader impacts of monkeypox to be considered, Cornell’s director of media relations Rebecca Valli told Forbes, adding that the school is considering “the potential academic impacts and accommodations which may arise” should a student come down with monkeypox.
There have been 10,768 confirmed cases of monkeypox in the U.S., according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The overwhelming majority of cases have been among men who identify as gay, bisexual or who have sex with men and transmission is suspected to have occurred through sexual activity in most of those infected. The World Health Organization , the White House and a number of local jurisdictions have declared the outbreak a public health emergency and a vaccination campaign is underway to target groups most at risk of the virus. Supplies of Jynneos, the only vaccine licensed against monkeypox in the U.S., do not come close to meeting demand for the shot and U.S. officials have greenlit a dose-saving strategy to stretch the stockpile. Though the outbreak is largely, though not exclusively, limited to men who have sex with men and spread through sexual activity, concern has grown among officials that the disease could spread more widely. The close-contact campus environment, notably dorms, contact sports and sex, have flagged colleges as more likely to experience outbreaks. At least five schools—Georgetown University, George Washington University, the University of Texas at Austin, Bucknell University and West Chester University—have already reported monkeypox cases, according to STAT News.
McGill’s Klein said it is “inevitable” that monkeypox will spillover into populations other than men who have sex with men, which could happen more easily in situations where people are living in close quarters. “There is no need for panic,” Klein stressed, urging strong and sensible messaging on how monkeypox is transmitted and reinforcing “messages about how to be safe when having sex,” especially with casual contacts. “Making vaccines easily available in safe spaces for those at risk would also go a long way to helping stem any potential outbreaks on campus,” Klein added.
Not Everyone Has to Be Equally Worried About Monkeypox (Slate)
How colleges are preparing for a new public health threat: monkeypox (NPR)
New Monkeypox Dosing Strategy Could Help Stretch Scarce Supplies—But Poses New Challenges For Vaccine Rollout (Forbes)