Los Angeles, California – Colleges in California are using lessons learned from COVID-19 to prevent the spread of monkeypox on campus. The sickness poses a lower health risk than COVID, according to experts, but it could keep students away from their studies for longer periods of time.
Alex Niles, a student at UC Santa Barbara, learned of the epidemic of monkeypox after two years of living with COVID-19. “Here we are again,” he reflected.
Niles, the president of the UC Student Association, was aware that monkeypox was spread differently than COVID-19 and constituted less of a threat in general. However, he began to observe a rising level of worry among the UC Santa Barbara student body.
Niles stated, “There’s a sizable number of people who are saying, ‘OK, I’m going to be vaccinated and start taking precautions.'”
With the outbreak of monkeypox occurring concurrently with the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic, colleges in California must combat the spread of two contagious diseases simultaneously. Vaccines against monkeypox are in poor supply, and illnesses can cause pupils to miss weeks of school. However, some administrators and professors assert that their experience combating COVID-19 has improved their readiness for the new threat.
Since the beginning of the COVID outbreak two and a half years ago, we have increased the size of our public health teams. Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer of the University of Southern California, remarked, “Our relationships with our local public health departments have improved.” This is the infrastructure that we will be able to utilize, regardless of whether the disease is monkeypox, meningococcal disease, chickenpox, or tuberculosis.
Throughout the Cal State system, awareness initiatives have been established to educate students on how to prevent monkeypox infection. And the Office of the President of the University of California has instructed its campuses to provide medical and academic support for those affected.
However, not all schools have immunizations, and those that do restrict access to populations deemed to be at high risk for the disease. They must collaborate with local public health departments to get greater supplies as they become available. This date may be some months away.
David Souleles, the director of the COVID-19 Response Team at UC Irvine, stated, “It is a system-level challenge that there are not enough vaccines available at this time.” “Health departments must closely monitor how it is utilized and distributed so that the greatest risk people receive it first.”
As of September 13, California had recorded 4,453 cases of monkeypox, 6.8% of which were in individuals aged 18 to 24. Several institutions around the nation have confirmed the presence of monkeypox as students return to school across the nation. Due to the scarcity of vaccines, several institutions in California are focusing on meeting the requirements of students who test positive by allocating isolation beds and providing academic accommodations.
While colleges and universities should ready to support students who test positive for monkeypox, there is no need for severe measures comparable to those previously adopted against COVID, a global pandemic, according to Souleles.
“The method and role that colleges will play in a monkeypox reaction will be more traditional,” he added. “We would have taken a similar approach whenever there was any other type of communicable disease on campus.”
According to scientists, it is crucial to tailor prevention measures to the disease, as the two are transmitted very differently.
Van Orman stated that, unlike COVID-19, monkeypox is only spread by close skin-to-skin contact. She stated that sitting next to someone with the sickness in class or even sharing a dorm is unlikely to result in infection.
Experts maintain that immunizations are the most effective means of preventing the spread of monkeypox, whether on campus or at the national level.
“Really expanding the availability of vaccine, both before and after exposure, will be the key to preventing the spread of this disease,” Van Orman added. She stated that USC has already had cases on campus, but the increase of cases nationally and locally has begun to level out.
The University of California, San Francisco has already obtained a vaccination supply, according to university spokesperson Laura Kurtzman. And if they fit into one of several categories, everyone on campus, including their 3,200 graduate students in the health sciences, can receive the vaccine.
These individuals include laboratory professionals who do monkeypox testing, those who have had direct contact with a positive case, and males or trans people who have sex with men, a population disproportionately impacted by the disease. As vaccines become available, similar groups of students would likely be prioritized on schools across the state.
In addition to vaccination, the majority of UC campuses provide examinations to students who wish to take them. Other universities continue to focus on providing testing and therapy. Cal State San Marcos, for example, has sought to be a Clinical Investigation Site for the Centers for Disease Control, which would allow them to test kids.
In contrast to COVID, campuses do not require students to take tests, and experts feel broad testing is unnecessary.
Van Orman stated, “If someone with monkeypox is in your dormitory, classroom, or office, you’re probably not going to know about it, nor do you need to know about it.” This individual poses no threat to you.
While monkeypox poses a much lower health risk than COVID-19, the symptoms can be severe and debilitating, according to specialists. And the isolation duration for a person with the condition might be significantly longer than the minimal isolation period of five days for COVID, often lasting up to four weeks.
Long-term isolation might result in more time away from school, making academic adjustments crucial, according to Souleles.
“This has a considerably greater impact on a student’s academic development and performance, especially here at UCI, where we operate on a 10-week quarter schedule,” he explained. “We want to ensure that our students are connected with our disability services team in order to determine their accommodation needs…so that they can manage their academic progress while they are isolated.”
Some schools are counting on the public health precautions they implemented in response to COVID to assist them in preventing the spread of monkeypox. For example, 166 isolation beds have been set aside at UC Irvine throughout the outbreak. A part of these will now be made available to patients with monkeypox.
The University of California, San Diego has added surveillance for monkeypox to its wastewater surveillance program, which monitors sewage in the region to detect early signs of COVID-19 outbreaks. To tackle infectious diseases, including monkeypox, the student health clinic at UC Davis has developed a public health unit consisting of a physician, a public health coordinator, and a public health nurse.
Niles stated that communication between university administrators and students is crucial, especially because “campuses are a credible source of health information.” Niles thought that his university would communicate about monkeypox more effectively than it did about COVID.
Niles stated that students had to be involved in every element of the pandemic response and advocate for themselves to ensure that things were handled properly. “Students were responsible for ensuring that academic responses were accessible to all students, that personal protective equipment was available, and that students’ fundamental needs were met.”
The UC Office of the President has encouraged institutions to boost outreach and education, and USC maintains a frequently updated website about monkeypox.
“The other important role I believe colleges play is delivering accurate information,” added Van Orman. She stated that universities should avoid sending signals that may contribute to the stigmatization of the disease. “Anything that identifies people or shames them based on their identification is detrimental to public health because it inhibits us from obtaining accurate information and assisting those affected.”
According to Souleles, campuses on the quarter system still have time to prepare for the return of students later this month. In the interim, they can see the actions of their counterparts on the semester system.
He stated, “I don’t anticipate we’ll see the thousands of cases we’ve seen with COVID-19.” I anticipate this to be a lot less frequent occurrence.