Sep 15, 2022 - Health

Concern about monkeypox spread shifts to college campuses

Illustration of a backpack on a background of college ruled paper, surrounded by dots.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

As monkeypox cases decline, public health officials are shifting their focus to college campuses, where students are returning to communal living arrangements that could sustain the outbreak.

Why it matters: University health clinics could be hard pressed to test, offer vaccines and respond to a fast-evolving health emergency without the help of local and state health agencies.

  • State health officials are already making contingencies and consulting with school officials in anticipation of new cases this fall, Michael Fraser, CEO of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, told reporters.
  • "I don't think colleges and universities are prepared to handle testing and vaccines," said Cesar Arias, an Infectious Diseases Society of America board member.

Where it stands: Georgetown University and George Washington University in Washington, D.C., the University of Texas at Austin and Bucknell and West Chester University in Pennsylvania already have reported confirmed cases, per WebMD.

  • The schools aren't planning vaccination campaigns but are raising awareness among students while developing isolation plans, according to the report.
  • Some universities have set up hotlines for students who have symptoms or questions about testing, treatment or vaccination.
  • Biden administration health officials last month met virtually with college presidents and campus health officials to discuss best practices for curbing the spread of the virus and launched a landing page with resources.
  • But any response will hinge on the availability of vaccines. The administration is stockpiling more shots but leaving it to local health providers to get available Jynneos vaccine to men who have sex with men, who account for the vast majority of cases, and others most at risk.

What they're saying: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends testing and isolating people in congregate settings like dormitories who are suspected of having monkeypox.

  • The CDC also encourages contact tracing to help identify people with exposure and prevent additional cases — while acknowledging this might not be possible in all settings.
  • The agency emphasizes that universities message the health threat by stressing that anyone can get monkeypox.

Yes, but: Isolating students for a period of two to four weeks if they test positive for monkeypox could be challenging, especially if they reside in dorms or other community living arrangements.

By the numbers: The U.S. accounts for 38% of confirmed and reported monkeypox cases worldwide, though the seven-day rolling average has been declining.

  • Vaccine administration also appears to be slowing down, which concerns public health experts.
  • "I would have expected vaccinations not to have dropped off so soon," Anand Parekh, medical advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told Axios. "We have to redouble our efforts when it comes to education and outreach."
  • Disease spread appears to be slowing most in major cities where the vaccine has been most available, but there's more limited supplies in rural areas, and if all areas are not targeted for vaccination, the spread could again become exponential, according to a Cowen analysis.
  • To help eliminate the outbreak public health will need to go "where the risk is greatest," Parekh said, which is "the best way to ensure that people benefit from these tools."
  • A Cowen survey found 75% of doctors see a 30% or lower chance of monkeypox becoming endemic in the U.S. or Europe.

What we're watching: Public health groups are calling on Congress to infuse the system with $4.5 billion in funding to combat the outbreak, a request that seems increasingly unlikely with little Republican support.

  • Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told top federal health officials at a hearing Wednesday that he believes it's less a funding than planning issue, and called on the White House to request a specific budget with a plan if the money is really needed.
  • Burr suggested using some unspent COVID funds to cover needs for the monkeypox outbreak, Axios' Alayna Treene reports, although health agency leaders said both federal agencies and states are unable to do so.
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