NM universities raise awareness for monkeypox but haven’t set precautionary measures

State health officials absent on guidelines as cases slowly creep up

By: - August 24, 2022 5:05 am

Only people deemed highly at risk can get vaccinated for monkeypox in New Mexico. (Photo by Getty Images)

College students all over the state are coming back to university campuses as school kicks off just a month after monkeypox was reported in New Mexico. But the largest institutions in Albuquerque and Las Cruces don’t have special measures set in place for the national public health emergency.

Instead, university officials are putting a lot of the responsibility on students to be mindful of the potential health risk.

The first case of monkeypox was found in New Mexico on July 11. About a month and a half later, that number has risen to 19 cases. There are over 15,900 confirmed cases throughout the U.S. and no deaths so far.


 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed the following symptoms for monkeypox:

  • Rash
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Exhaustion
  • Muscle aches and backache
  • Headache
  • Respiratory symptoms (sore throat, nasal congestion or cough)

Symptoms typically start within three weeks of exposure. Not everyone has all the symptoms.

People who think they’re at risk for monkeypox can call the N.M. Department of Health at 1-855-3453 (option four) for a consultation or self-register online. Only those deemed highly at risk can get vaccinated.

The University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University have no precautionary measures set in place for monkeypox specifically.

Both Eastern and Western New Mexico Universities have isolated quarantine spaces available on campus that could be used for monkeypox if needed.

The lack of action by UNM and NMSU, the largest universities in the state, reflects the absence of state and national standards to follow for the health crisis.

Instead, most colleges are just sharing information about monkeypox to students, staff and faculty. UNM spokesperson Cinnamon Blair said the university’s goal is to address the false rumors about monkeypox spreading in the public.

UNM is also encouraging students to maintain rigorous health standards, Blair said. Western New Mexico University’s Betsy Miller, interim vice president of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, responded similarly.

“The wellbeing of WNMU students is our top priority, and we hold that it is the responsibility of every (student) to maintain their own health and to do their part to protect their classmates, co-workers, teammates and peers,” Miller said via email.

NMSU’s Special Assistant to the Vice Chancellor Jon Webster said monkeypox isn’t a concern right now. Blair agreed and said UNM will consult with health partners to set up safety measures later on if it becomes necessary. Both said the issue might become more concerning if cases rise.

“We’ve worked our way through it through an entire two years of COVID,” Webster said. “I have no doubt we could do it if we needed to with this same virus.”

Dr. Meghan Brett, epidemiologist with UNM Hospital, said this outreach is a good response so communities are attentive to symptoms like rashes or fever.

Limited vaccine availability

Currently, only people deemed highly at risk can schedule an appointment to get vaccinated. NMDOH spokesperson David Morgan said applicants will be screened for sexual history, travel and other things.

Right now, the state has about 1,000 Jynneos vaccine vials, he said, which can be enough for roughly 4,000 first and second doses.

But some other officials think more needs to be done. States Newsroom talked with Georges C. Benjamin, American Public Health Association executive director, who said colleges should be putting contingency measures in place and assuming they’ll have monkeypox cases.

“There’s nothing to say they’ll have big outbreaks, but all schools should assume that they’re going to have somebody on their campus that has monkeypox,” Benjamin said. “The outbreak is just too widespread for that not to be the case.”

Still, some universities are still struggling to cope with just one public health emergency. Jeff Long is the vice president for student affairs at Eastern New Mexico University and said the COVID-19 pandemic is at the forefront of their minds.

“Right now, we’re still dealing with COVID as students and faculty come back to campus,” he said.

But he said the university would transition to online classes if it comes to it. After COVID, many universities boosted their online presence and still have virtual options available for students.

Contracting the virus

Many college students travel over summer break, and because New Mexico has the 15th-lowest case count in the country, students may come back from states with higher monkeypox cases.

N.M. flanked by monkeypox in surrounding states

All of New Mexico’s neighboring states have higher cases of monkeypox. Texas alone has over 1,300, the fourth-highest count in the U.S.

But monkeypox doesn’t spread as easily as COVID, Brett said, and it’s most likely after skin-to-skin contact.

Because of this, Brett said traveling itself may not increase the risk of contracting monkeypox but rather the activities done while traveling. The virus can be contracted from unprotected sexual activities, she said. This may be prevalent on college campuses, which is why she said it must be discussed.

“This is where people need to continue to talk about what needs to be in place by way of safe sex practices,” Brett said.

She said communication with partners about rashes or exposures is meaningful as well as getting personal rashes checked out. “That’s important whether it’s monkeypox, syphilis, gonorrhea or other types of sexually transmitted infections,” she said.

Monkeypox can also spread through sharing objects, fabrics or surfaces with someone who has the virus. Dorms are one of the higher-risk settings the CDC lists where transmission may be more likely after someone contracts the virus. The center recommends testing residents who might have monkeypox, providing them with masks to wear and disinfecting areas.

Brett said contracting the virus through other commonly shared items on campuses like desks or equipment is less likely.

UNM and NMSU recommend students contact their health centers if they believe they’ve been exposed, though vaccines are only available through the N.M. Department of Health. 

The quarantine for monkeypox is longer than COVID. The CDC says people should stay isolated while symptoms persist, which usually lasts two to four weeks — a prolonged period that could cause issues for students missing classes and work.


The majority of monkeypox cases are seen in men who have sex with other men, according to the CDC. This has caused issues of communities like gay men being stigmatized amid the crisis, though Brett said public health care workers are trying to avoid that.

“When in health care, we try to do our best, right, to treat everybody who comes to see us fairly and equally and hopefully without stigma,” Brett said.

She said the public should try to personalize how they think about who could contract the disease to avoid stigmatization. “The individuals who go on to develop monkeypox could be your brother or your son or someone else that you care about,” Brett said.

Blair said that there are mental health resources available at UNM for those struggling with anxiety around the issue and wants everyone to feel safe getting medical help if it’s needed. She added that the campus doesn’t create issues that would single out one community so everyone is supported.

“We want people to feel comfortable talking about it, going to a health care provider, not feeling bad about it,” Blair said. “It’s just coming on the heels of all the COVID stuff. It’s just one more thing.”

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.