Monkeypox virus under a microscope.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Monkeypox is a growing contagion concern at Cornell.

August 22, 2022

Monkeypox in Ithaca, Tompkins County As Students Return to Campus

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As students return to Cornell’s campus for the Fall 2022 semester, campus officials and healthcare providers have to adapt to yet another national disease outbreak. This year, the monkeypox virus has been the newest challenge in a series of recent semesters affected by contagion.

Rebecca Valli, Director of Media Relations for Cornell University, told National Public Radio that Cornell University is creating testing, treatment, and isolation plans for individuals affected by the disease in addition to the university publishing an online resource with information on monkeypox. 

“We are also considering the potential academic impacts and accommodations which may arise,” Valli said. 

As of August 19th, there were three confirmed cases of Monkeypox in Tompkins County. The same day, Dr. Jada Hamilton, Medical Director at Cornell Health, sent out an email that revealed new monkeypox information resources and urged students to contact Cornell Health if they developed the virus’ symptoms. 

Dr. Heidi Torres, Assistant Hospital Epidemiologist at Weill Cornell Medical Center, noted that since the explosion of cases in the summer, healthcare professionals in New York City have seen a peak in monkeypox cases followed by a bit of a decrease and plateau in cases, which Torres attributed to increased awareness and behavior change.

“I can also say in the areas outside of New York City we’re seeing somewhat of a similar pattern. We’re seeing that the cases did rise and we’re starting to see what may be the curve coming down,” Torres said. “So we’re hoping that this is uniform across the state, and as more vaccines become available, we’re hoping that’s going to continue though we’ll need to see what the fall and the return to school brings.”

Some Cornell students have concerns about contracting the disease and the current status of available vaccines.

For Saijai Chaloemtiarana ’25, the risk of contracting monkeypox is not necessarily greater upon returning to campus.

“Personally, I am less worried about [monkeypox] here than at home because I live in a city, but I do think it’s something we should be considering,” Chaloemtiarana said. 

Dr. Jay Varma, an epidemiologist at Weill Cornell Medical College, told NPR that despite the concentration of monkeypox in the MSM community, monkeypox should be a concern of the larger community.”No outbreak stays limited to any one social network…There’s no biological reason it couldn’t spill over into other groups,” Varma said. 

In a statement to The Sun, Samantha Hillson, a representative for Tompkins County Health Department, explained the protocol for positive results. 

“The Health Department works closely with the NYS Department of Health when there is a lab-reported positive test result for Monkeypox. Our local communicable disease nurses conduct an interview with the case to determine who may have been a close contact. The nurse then follows up with the close contacts to determine next steps, which may include monitoring and vaccines [if higher risk],” Hillson wrote in a statement to The Sun.

According to Hillson’s statement, the TCHD hosted a Peace of Mind Community Partnership coalition meeting on August 16th and distributed a Monkeypox and Safer Sex flyer to community partners.

Those who want to learn more can sign up for the New York State Department of Health’s monkeypox text alert system by texting “MONKEYPOX” to 81336 or “MONKEYPOXESP” for texts in Spanish. By providing a zip code, users can also opt-in for location-based messages, which may include information on vaccines and care in their area.

The TCHD’s newly published Monkeypox web page detailed important facts and steps to take to reduce risk of transmission, including avoiding close physical contact with symptomatic individuals, talking to sexual partner(s) regarding symptoms and reaching out to a health provider in case of symtoms for a risk-assessment

The TCHD also suggested reducing activities that increase risk of transmission, including sex until symtoms are evaluated. Students are encouraged to refer to the Center for Disease Control’s guide to Safer Sex and Social Gatherings.

The TCHD also stated that Tompkins County does not currently have a supply of vaccine for monkeypox.

“If we have a case with local close contacts who are at high-risk of contracting the virus, the state will send vaccination doses for those individuals. Individuals could also travel to another county to receive the vaccine,” Hillson said.

Varma, who is also director of the Cornell Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response told Politico that monkeypox is not likely to be eradicated.

“We just don’t have the kind of public health and health care infrastructure to eliminate this,” Varma said. “If we can’t eliminate syphilis, which is a disease that is readily treatable with a shot of penicillin, I find it very hard to believe that we’ll be able to control monkeypox.”

Dr. Torres shared her advice for college students during this time, emphasizing awareness and communication.

“Until we have a vaccine that’s widely distributed, the best prevention is awareness…  having open, frank discussions with partners you’re going to be in close contact or intimate contact with, practicing safe sex,” Torres said. 

Torres also noted that condoms and other protective measures against Sexually Transmitted Diseases do not necessarily eliminate monkeypox risk because the monkeypox rash can occur on any part of the body.

“Knowing who to see, where you can get tested … know[ing] that you may be eligible for a vaccine, and having somewhere to go to have those conversations — is down the line,” Torres said.

This story has been updated.