How colleges are preparing for monkeypox The risk of contracting monkeypox is still low in the U.S., but colleges are already seeing cases.

How colleges are preparing for a new public health threat: monkeypox

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With the new school year in sight, colleges are starting to prepare for a new public health threat - monkeypox. The White House recently declared monkeypox a public health emergency, and campuses have already seen cases. Pooja Salhotra reports.

POOJA SALHOTRA, BYLINE: Summer is usually a time of rest in the education world, but for college administrators like Andrea Conner, there hasn't been much of a break.

ANDREA CONNER: I have ended up accidental COVID czar.

SALHOTRA: Conner is dean of students at Lake Forest College, a small school about 30 miles north of Chicago. During the pandemic, she led a team of people tasked with responding to COVID-19. Now they've added a new virus to their watch list - monkeypox.

CONNER: So whether they're students, they're faculty or staff, we want to educate them on what to do, what to look for, what the symptoms are and, frankly, exactly where to go when or if you're concerned about monkeypox.

SALHOTRA: Over the last two years, colleges and universities have found ways to manage COVID on campus. But a different virus calls for a different response. Here's epidemiologist Jay Varma of Weill Cornell Medicine.

JAY VARMA: Monkeypox is - even though it is a important public health threat right now, it does not present the same risks to campuses that COVID did.

SALHOTRA: That's mostly because COVID spreads very easily through the air, but monkeypox is less contagious. The current outbreak is spreading almost entirely through intimate contact. Still, it doesn't mean colleges are off the hook.

VARMA: It's likely that some students on campus will potentially contract monkeypox.

SALHOTRA: In fact, some students already have. Georgetown University in D.C., University of Texas in Austin and West Chester University outside Philadelphia all told NPR they had at least one confirmed case over the summer. When the fall semester starts, those numbers could go up. Varma says there are certain areas of campus that colleges should keep a close eye on.

VARMA: For example, sports teams and locker rooms as well as coming into close contact with, you know, towels or clothing, which can occur in gyms or possibly even in, for example, theater troupes.

SALHOTRA: A monkeypox infection can also last a lot longer than COVID, sometimes for several weeks. So that means a student who gets the virus could be stuck in their dorm room for a big chunk of their academic semester.

VARMA: This presents a very important challenge both to the individual who has to put up with that level of isolation as well as the university itself, which needs to make arrangements to support that.

SALHOTRA: Conner at Lake Forest says if a student gets monkeypox, the school will coordinate to help them with their basic needs.

CONNER: We'll have to deliver meals to them. We'll have to make sure that they can get their laundry done.

SALHOTRA: The school is less equipped to help with testing. For that, Lake Forest students have to go off campus. It's a different story at some larger colleges.

DAVID SOULELES: We have a population of over 37,000 students when everybody is back here in the fall and a large workforce.

SALHOTRA: David Souleles leads the COVID-19 response team at the University of California Irvine. He says students can already get tested for monkeypox at the campus health center, and the school isn't stopping there.

SOULELES: We have actually requested that our student health center be considered as a site for vaccinations.

SALHOTRA: Right now there aren't quite enough vaccines to go around. But if nothing else, he says, colleges are better prepared for monkeypox than they were for COVID.

SOULELES: I think a lot of the structures and foundations that campus has built and relationships that we built will allow us to start in a better place in responding to monkeypox.

SALHOTRA: For NPR News, I'm Pooja Salhotra.

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