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Over the last two years, universities across Texas and the rest of the country have worked hard to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on their campuses with virtual classes, masks and increased cleaning of public spaces.
Now, as colleges prepare for students to return to campus next month, a new disease is gaining steam around Texas and the country: monkeypox.
State health experts say universities should start communicating with students ahead of the fall semester about how to identify symptoms and avoid contracting the virus. They also say schools should consider how they would respond to an outbreak on campuses where students live in close proximity engaging in intimate behaviors and sharing beverages or food.
“College and university [students require] a very specific kind of messaging and those messages need to be prepared now so they can be reaching those students before they return to school,” said Rebecca Fischer, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Texas A&M University. “When school comes back, we need to be ready to roll out messaging if something happens on campus.”
Monkeypox is much harder to contract via casual conversation or in a classroom setting than COVID-19, and health experts say the risk of exposure to monkeypox is currently low. So far, the virus has mainly spread between men who have sex with men, though anyone can get the virus though close contact. While it is not a sexually transmitted infection, it most easily spreads through skin-to-skin contact and is often passed along during sexual activity.
The virus is not deadly and hospitalization is rare, but Fischer said it is an “unpleasant” and “painful” virus. State and national health experts believe the number of cases will continue to rise exponentially and will spread. The virus causes painful, pus-filled blisters and lesions on the skin, along with fever and swollen lymph nodes in the early stages of infection. It can last from a few days to a month.
“One of the most important things is this communication plan and I think that this is something we’re failing at currently in the United States,” Fischer said. “People are becoming afraid because they don’t understand monkeypox. … What they’re hearing is we have cases in our community. What they are not hearing is ‘what is my personal risk?’”
Some university spokespeople said leaders are starting to think about the fall, though they are mainly relying on local health departments for guidance. None of the universities have the monkeypox vaccine. The state has received 14,000 doses of the vaccines, which are being provided to the local health departments.
Representatives for Baylor University and Texas A&M said their health care providers have been trained to spot symptoms and possible cases among patients who come into campus clinics. The University of Texas at Arlington said it will be able to test symptomatic individuals for monkeypox and plans to distribute health information closer to the start of the school year.
Multiple schools, including Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at Dallas said they are meeting this week to discuss monkeypox mitigation and response plans for the fall. The University of Texas at Austin, which had one positive case of monkeypox confirmed earlier this month, did not respond to questions. But a spokesperson told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “the risk to the greater campus community remains low.”
And on its health center website, UT-Austin acknowledged it anticipates more cases.
“Just as we have seen with other communicable diseases, we expect campus to mirror the community with the incidence of this virus,” the website reads.
Beyond these early steps, few universities shared specifics for how campus leaders plan to handle positive cases on campus, including where the school plans to quarantine a student who tests positive for the virus, how students would continue with classes or if the university would conduct contact tracing. Fischer said schools should begin making these plans.
“I’m not alarmed, but I’m moderately concerned about containment and mitigation efforts,” Fischer said. “We don’t want to get caught with our pants around our ankles. Having the plan to respond and the best way to contain disease spread is to have aggressive plans to roll into action up front.”
One school, the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley, said it would isolate an infected student and handle each case on an individual basis while following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On its website, the CDC recommends providing isolation spaces with a dedicated bathroom for people who live in close spaces like student housing.
David Lakey, vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer at the University of Texas System, said many schools are still in the planning phase and are putting together messages to send students. He said schools must find a way to educate students without stigmatizing the group of people among whom the virus is currently being spread: men who have sex with other men.
“We need to make sure we’re careful to reach out to groups letting them know that this is occurring,” Lakey said. “That’s not going to be the only way that it can be spread, but that’s the population that’s being spread through right now.”
Misinformation has also made providing accurate information about the monkeypox virus especially vital.
Last week, a lecturer at the University of Texas at Dallas drew condemnation from students after he said on Twitter “Can we at least try to find a cure for homosexuality, especially among men?” and said that anal sex “can lead to a variety of diseases.” Health officials say one of the main ways monkeypox spreads is through prolonged physical contact, but it is not a sexually transmitted disease.
The university said it was investigating complaints about the professor’s statements and has allowed students signed up for the professor’s fall classes to switch to new course sections taught by different professors.
Disclosure: Baylor University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, University of Texas – Arlington, University of Texas – Dallas, University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley, University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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