There are now more than 14,000 confirmed cases of monkeypox in the United States, according to a tracker updated daily by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And yes, a few already have been identified at institutions of higher education.
The University of Maryland announced on Thursday it has a presumptive case of a staff member who is taking “all necessary medical steps,” and the Pennsylvania State University also reported earlier this week that an off-campus student had been deemed positive. They are among the first to show up as colleges open for the fall semester, with leaders watching closely the potential for a trifecta of viruses–monkeypox, COVID-19 and the flu–to impact the 2022-23 academic year.
Maryland and Pennsylvania are among the top 10 in cases nationally for monkeypox, a disease that can present symptoms such as fever and swollen lymph nodes, but has been recognizable by painful sores and rashes in some patients. New York, Texas, California, Florida and Illinois–no surprise given their populations–lead the way in cases, with Georgia also in the top five with more than 1,000. Though there is debate over how it spreads, sex among gay men has resulted in most positive cases, according to health experts. With limited vaccinations (an additional 1.8 million doses are on the way) only being available to those with the most severe symptoms, there are concerns about spread and its potential to hit college populations.
“As this disease continues to be present across the country and the world, it is likely we will experience MPX cases on campus,” Dr. Spyridon Marinopoulos, director of the University Health Center and chief medical officer at Maryland, said in a statement to the community. “We are continuing to monitor the situation. We appreciate everyone’s heightened awareness as we work together to prevent the spread of this emerging illness.”
In a recent webinar with the University of Arizona community and in an article published by its student newspaper, The Daily Wildcat, President Robert Robbins pressed the need for students to be conscious of their hygiene because he said monkeypox can transmit “through everyday activities such as sharing utensils, linens and being in close proximity to respiratory droplets.” But he also noted that the disease is not as dangerous as COVID-19 and its ever-evolving variants, where outcomes can be much more severe. “If you have not received a [COVID-19] vaccine, I implore you, I beg you to make an appointment today.”
At least for now, the numbers of COVID cases nationwide have dropped 18% over the past two weeks, though underreporting could be a factor. Test positivity is up in every state, as low as 4% in Vermont but as much as 33% in Missouri. In 18 states, positivity is sky high, at more than 20%. But monkeypox is grabbing most of the headlines because it is new. Colleges and universities, many of which just opened or will be in the coming weeks, are planning as they did for COVID, with increased sanitation measures in place and with strong messaging to students.
The University of Maryland is advising students to “avoid close, skin-to-skin contact with people who have a rash that looks like MPX. Do not kiss, hug, cuddle or have sex with someone with MPX” and also to “avoid contact with objects and materials that a person with MPX has used. Wash your hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, especially before eating or touching your face.”
Penn State has told its students that if they believe they are symptomatic to get an appointment with its university health system immediately or call its 24/7 health hotline. They also should self-isolate and avoid contact with others. More severe cases that require vaccination will be addressed by the state department of health. As for faculty and staff members, officials said they should not come to campus and instead work remotely if they can or use sick time. Most of the cases there have not come from rural areas of the state but from Philadelphia, which has struggled to get enough vaccines to those who need it. The city is expected to get more help soon under the new wave of doses coming from the Biden Administration, but colleges in big urban areas should be watching case counts closely.
One institution trying to get in front of potential outbreaks is the University of Minnesota system, whose team is testing wastewater, similar to the COVID response. According to the Duluth News Tribune, researchers are not only looking at the potential for monkeypox (they haven’t found any yet) but also polio, which has resurfaced in New York in one confirmed case, with the presumption there could be more. The CDC has alerted individuals to ensure they are up to date on the polio vaccine, though most adults got them as children, and colleges should be conduits to spread that message, as well.