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Illinois health department urges schools to watch for monkeypox; COVID measures pulled back

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The US doesn't have enough doses of the monkeypox vaccine, at this moment only those “at risk” are advised to get the shot. Are you one of them? Veuer’s Maria Mercedes Galuppo has the story.

CHICAGO — Monitoring students and staff at Illinois schools for new and unexplained lesions is among the new monkeypox prevention guidance recommended this week by the state’s health department as officials pivot away from COVID-19 restrictions.

While the monkeypox virus in children is exceedingly rare, with just a handful of such cases across the U.S., a webinar hosted by the Illinois Department of Public Health for school district administrators statewide conveyed strategies for preventing the spread of the infection in schools.

The health department on Tuesday also discussed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest COVID-19 guidance for schools, which removed the recommendation to quarantine for close contacts of those with coronavirus.

IDPH officials denied a request from the Chicago Tribune to observe this week’s virtual program, which was not livestreamed for the public. Officials said the session was intended to “provide school administrators with opportunities to ask questions and meet with each other to share best practices.”

But a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education shared details of the updated IDPH recommendations, including new monkeypox guidance for schools that urges districts to contact their local health department immediately “to discuss any (suspected) or confirmed cases of MPV,” the monkeypox virus.

“Any persons with MPV should remain out of school until MPV symptoms have resolved, the rash has healed, all scabs have fallen off, and a fresh layer of skin has formed per (CDC) recommendations,” officials said in a statement.

School districts were urged to “rapidly identify and assess people who might have been exposed to MPV, in collaboration with the local health department,” while noting that “rashes are not uncommon in children due to a variety of causes.”

Schools should “encourage staff and students to stay home if ill and maintain supportive sick leave protocols to encourage this,” the health department said. Other recommendations include ensuring access to hand-washing and limiting the sharing of personal items, including eating utensils, cups, bedding, towels and clothing.

With more than 600 cases recorded in the city, the Chicago Department of Public Health is tracking the monkeypox virus, which the state of Illinois and the federal government have both declared a public health state of emergency.

Officials at Chicago Public Schools said earlier this week “it is important to note that there have been zero documented cases of MPV among 0 – 17-year-olds in Chicago, and only a handful of cases in children globally.” On Tuesday, around 850 cases of monkeypox were reported in Illinois.

“Because the virus is most often spread through prolonged, intimate contact, MPV is very unlikely to spread in a workplace setting or a school setting,” CPS officials said in a statement on Monday. “We will continue to monitor the situation and work with our public health partners, but at this point there is very little risk to school communities.”

CPS also recently revealed its COVID-19 protocols for the coming school year, which include “strongly recommending” masking; continuing the free, weekly in-school testing program; and excluding students and staff members who test positive for COVID-19 from school for five days, regardless of their vaccination status.

The district has already announced one change to its coronavirus mitigation strategies based on new guidance from the CDC.

For months, unvaccinated students and staff members were required to stay home for five days if they came in close contact with an infected person.

Last week, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez touted an expansion to the district’s test-to-stay program, which would allow unvaccinated close contacts to stay in school if they are asymptomatic and test negative twice.

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But in a newsletter sent to parents Monday, the district announced that unvaccinated close contacts will no longer be required to learn from home for five days. Instead, they can stay in school, as long as they wear a mask for 10 days after exposure. They will be “strongly encouraged” to use rapid take-home COVID-19 tests as well.

“We are still reviewing the updated (CDC) guidance with the Chicago Department of Public Health,” CPS said in its note to parents.

The Chicago Teachers Union, meanwhile, is working on landing in the coming days a renewed safety agreement with the district for the coming school year. Members are slated to be briefed Thursday. The last safety agreement was forged in January after CTU members voted to refuse in-person work amid a rise in COVID-19 cases.

State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said Illlinois has adopted the CDC’s streamlined COVID-19 guidance for schools, including the removal of the recommendation to quarantine for close contacts. Those who have been exposed to the virus should wear a well-fitted mask for 10 full days after exposure and get tested on day 6.

The CDC is also no longer recommending routine screening testing in K-12 schools, but supports “focus testing on high-risk activities during high COVID-19 Community Level or in response to an outbreak,” according to the guidance.

The agency has also stopped recommending social distancing, which Illinois has already dropped, and it eliminated the recommendation to test-to-stay after potential exposure.

“We’re in a stronger place today as a nation, with more tools — like vaccination, boosters, and treatments — to protect ourselves, and our communities, from severe illness from COVID-19,” CDC officials said last week.

“This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives,” officials said.

Illinois school districts must continue to provide remote learning to any student who is in isolation for COVID-19, Ayala said in an Illinois State Board of Education newsletter outlining the CDC changes.

Schools are encouraged to follow daily operational strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases, such as: keeping students and staff members who are ill at home; maintaining clean, disinfected facilities; proper hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette; and improved ventilation systems, she said.

“CDC guidance also maintains the importance of continuing to establish and support policies that makes getting vaccinated easy and convenient,” Ayala said. “Schools are encouraged to create on-site opportunities by hosting school-located vaccination clinics, or connecting eligible children, students, staff, and families to off-site vaccination locations.”

As the CDC is still recommending testing in K-12 schools in several instances, “IDPH is using SHIELD Illinois as a resource for these scenarios and for those who choose to provide screening testing at their school,” Ayala said.

Several Illinois school districts are opting not to use SHIELD, a weekly saliva-based coronavirus screening program, saying it’s disruptive for students and a burden on employees to administer when there are plenty of other testing options in the community.

A total of 177 school districts and 617 school buildings are signed up to use SHIELD Illinois testing, spokeswoman Beth Heller said in a Tuesday statement. Last year, 258 public school districts signed up for the program.

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