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Monkeypox Not Likely to Spread Through Workplace, Travel

Two business people shaking hands in front of a group of people.

​A world exhausted from fighting COVID-19 for more than two years is now facing another potential hazard after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared monkeypox a "public health emergency of international concern" on July 23 and the U.S. declared a public health emergency on Aug. 4.

With more than 7,000 cases across 48 U.S. states, people are looking for guidance on how to avoid the virus.

By most accounts, monkeypox is passed through prolonged, direct, skin-to-skin contact, which can frighten some who are returning to practices like giving hugs to friends in social settings and shaking hands at work.

But many in the medical field say monkeypox cannot be passed through handshakes. Most cases so far have been linked to sexual activity, though the virus is not considered a sexually transmitted infection.

Rather, individuals can spread monkeypox through intimate contact, such as kissing, hugging, cuddling and sexual intercourse, according to Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, speaking July 27 to CNN.

Nonetheless, many people are on alert.

Additionally, monkeypox adds another apprehension to those work-from-home employees who might be considering a return to the office soon.

"I really don't think monkeypox has changed any social interactions, because they were already changed because of COVID," said Paula Harvey, SHRM-SCP, member of the SHRM Board of Directors. "With COVID-19 cases on the rise again, we are seeing employees and folks in public be more cautious again."

Michelle Griffin, SHRM-CP, CEO of Griffin Resources LLC, said the majority of her clients adopted policies that covered all communicable diseases and rely on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, state regulation, Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommendations, and other safety and health guidelines.

"They have not needed to adjust any policies in writing specifically for monkeypox because of the more general policies," Griffin noted. "With that said, we haven't seen any companies specifically make an accommodation or rules around monkeypox at all at this time."

Dr. Janice Johnston, chief medical officer at Redirect Health, said knowing the signs and symptoms of monkeypox is important.

"Making sure that your employees are aware of how it is spread will help with situational awareness," Johnston said. "It is spread by close contact, and top symptoms include rash, skin bumps and fever. Frequent, proper hand-washing is highly recommended.

"If an employee is experiencing any of the symptoms associated with monkeypox, they should avoid close contact with other team members," Johnston continued. "Those infected should seek medical attention for proper medication to treat the symptoms. Monkeypox is not a major concern at this point, but if a significant number of cases arise in the near future, vaccinations may be necessary."

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COVID-19 and Communicable Diseases

Handshakes and Hugs

While the country's business and industry conference schedules mostly are paused in August, more attention could be paid this fall when they resume. If cases continue to climb, people may be concerned about interacting with others at conferences or on business meetings.

Dr. Ali Khan, an epidemiologist and dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, speaking in late July to USA Today, said monkeypox "doesn't pass through casual contact, like shaking hands, a quick peck on the cheek or sharing a toilet seat."

He said that theoretically it can be transmitted by touching clothing or sheets used by people with open sores and through the air if someone has mouth sores, but there is no evidence anyone has caught it that way during this outbreak.

Wen said people who wish to reduce their risk "should avoid crowded clubs, raves, sex parties and other places where there is prolonged skin-to-skin or face-to-face contact with many people who may be wearing less clothing."

Vaccine Supply Limited, but More on the Way

Wen does not advise everyone seek the monkeypox vaccine because "it is extremely limited right now." About 1.1 million doses of the two-dose vaccine have been delivered thus far, much less than the 3.5 million doses that are needed.

"Who should definitely get the vaccine are those with known exposure to someone with monkeypox," Wen told CNN. "If given within four days of exposure, the vaccine can prevent someone from developing monkeypox. If given within two weeks, it lessens the likelihood of progression to severe illness." 

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Virginia.


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