As students head back to school for another term of instruction during the pandemic, another infectious disease is causing concern about returning to shared spaces. There are now more than 15,900 cases of monkeypox in the U.S. and more than 44,500 cases globally. New York state reported its first juvenile case of monkeypox this week, causing concern over whether it is still safe to gather in group settings.
While monkeypox is not highly transmissible like COVID-19, the virus can still spread through skin-to-skin contact, respiratory secretion like coughing or sneezing, prolonged face-to-face contact, and exposure to someone who has the virus by touching lesions, body fluids, and infected scabs.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced that the risk of monkeypox to children and adolescents is low, as students head back to dorms, classrooms, and extracurricular activities, medical experts are weighing in on what to do to ensure the likelihood of a monkeypox outbreak does not happen.
“Schools should follow regular cleaning and disinfect commonly used surfaces. Students should wear face masks if they are having prolonged contact with someone and should minimize sharing blankets and towels with others to avoid transmission,” said Dr. Oni Blackstock, a primary care and HIV physician and founder and executive director of Health Justice, a racial and health equity consulting firm that works with healthcare and public organization. “If one contracts monkeypox, they should isolate, cover up lesions if they are going to be around others, avoid closed places, and should see your health care provider, sexual health clinics, or any federal health centers for treatment.
According to a new study by the New England Journal of Medicine, 528 infections were diagnosed between April 27 and June 24, around 43 sites and 16 countries; 98% of persons with infection were gay and bisexual men and the virus was transmitted through sexual activity. Although the likelihood of contracting monkeypox outside of sexual activity is lower, teachers and people who are vigilant about the virus and its impact are sharing their concerns.
Krystal Figueroa, a certified coach, author, instructor, and teacher, has had students in her classroom with COVID-19 who showed no signs of infection. However, as a teacher who will soon be teaching grade 3-K, Figueroa is still worried because similar to COVID-19, there is a lot of information she might not know about monkeypox.
“I have been wearing my mask, washing my hands regularly, and having a good diet,” Figueroa said. “I am concerned with making sure I don’t bring home anything from my job since my mother is up in age, and her and my husband’s health mean a lot to me.”
New York is one of the few states with a high monkeypox rate relative to its population, with over 3000 reported cases.
“I know of parents who are fearful of sending their children back to school due to the coronavirus as well as monkeypox. Especially due to younger children being more vulnerable,” said Chad Buckley, a New York City resident concerned about the city’s infection numbers. “I would get vaccinated and do what it takes to keep myself safe and those around me.”
While the Department of Health is working to provide more access to the monkeypox vaccines. Recent data shows that there are some racial disparities in vaccine rollouts. Black New Yorkers are 31% of the population and at risk of contracting the monkeypox virus, but they have only received 12% of the vaccine doses administered.
Currently, two vaccines are available to help treat the monkeypox virus as recommended by the CDC. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration has approved both Jynneos and ACAM2000 vaccines to treat monkeypox. In the meantime, some people are working around the clock to help people in New York access vaccinations.
“I’ve done this work for 30 years, but I had to call my colleagues to get my vaccination, and when I did, I went to a sexual health clinic all the way in Harlem, and there was one man who was Latinx, and another that was Black, all the others were caucasian,” said Donald R. Powell, the senior director of programs and development at Exponents, a nonprofit that works to improve the quality of life for those managing chronic health conditions. Powell’s primary concern is providing access and accurate messaging for Black and brown people and educating youth about the monkeypox virus. “Individuals involved in extracurricular sports activities, where there are towels and folks are in confined spaces, should be a concern,”
Powell said educating students about monkeypox is essential because some common misconceptions can result in some marginalized groups being targeted by attacks.
“The other concern is that there will be a backlash on queer and trans communities,” Powell said. “So my problem is what happens to the 14-year-old trans woman trying to navigate high school; she now becomes a scapegoat and becomes stigmatized and bullied in school because of [monkeypox].”
Even though the contracting of monkeypox in schools is low, the CDC has outlined the essential concerns for teachers, students, and families who are worried about sending their children back to school. Along with the city health department, people can receive correct information about the virus by visiting the CDC and World Health Organization websites to follow safety guidelines that are in place and find vaccination sites to protect themselves.