As many of us prepare to increase our congregational activities involving young people, the last thing we want to do is prepare for two pandemics at once. As we come up on our third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be exhausting to be constantly checking infection rates and mitigation recommendations and pivoting our plans accordingly, especially as much of our society has moved on, even though the virus hasn’t. But monkeypox, like COVID, is a national emergency, and we must do what we can to keep our young people safe. Unfortunately, we are entering an age where epidemics and pandemics are likely to become more prevalent. Instead of waiting for the day when we can return to “normal,” we are facing a call to live into the realities of life as it is now, while also addressing the root causes that got us to this point (this piece provides a helpful primer on what those root causes are).
First and foremost, it’s crucial to acknowledge both that the risk for children of acquiring monkeypox in the U.S. is low at present, and that it is unlikely to stay that way, so it is vital that we implement precautions now, rather than responding after the fact if case rates in children increase. Misinformation about how monkeypox is transmitted is rampant, so it is crucial that those responsible for the care of children have and disseminate accurate information. Monkeypox is usually spread through close, personal, often skin-to-skin contact or contact with the respiratory secretions of an infected (not necessarily symptomatic) person. Monkeypox can be spread through touching objects, fabrics (clothing, bedding, or towels), and surfaces that have been used by someone with monkeypox, or through contact with an infected animal. It is possible, though not likely, to acquire monkeypox from casual contact with the respiratory secretions of an infected person.
So, what does this mean for those of us who work with children in the parish? First, it means checking the local precaution level for COVID-19 with both the CDC and local agencies before each time we gather. Implementing mitigation methods for COVID-19, which is usually transmitted via respiratory means, will also provide a level of protection against monkeypox, which is sometimes transmitted via respiratory means. It also means doing all the things we should always be doing to reduce the spread of illness in childcare settings. While most schools have custodial, facilities, and nursing staff who create and enforce policies around these basic measures, in churches, it is the responsibility of staff and volunteers to ensure that they are being implemented.
- Check for the most up-to-date guidelines from the CDC about working with young people during the monkeypox outbreak and county-by-county COVID-19 data before each time you gather.
- Provide access to adequate handwashing supplies, including soap and water, for students, staff, and volunteers, and ensuring everyone wash hands before meals, after toileting, and when transitioning between different groups of people with close contact.
- Teach children about avoiding close contact that involves potential transfer of bodily fluids/secretions, like sharing cups, and coughing/sneezing close to one another (but always assume that children are not implementing these behaviors consistently, and be extra certain to implement hand washing and cleaning practices for this reason).
- Maintaining routine cleaning and disinfection practices, according to CDC guidance.
- Children, staff, and volunteers should stay home when sick, especially if they have a rash.
- Identifying private spaces for assessment of an ill child away from others, and providing personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff who care for students with infectious diseases. Staff should be caring for ill children only until parents can come get them, and should not return to the other children or other at-risk persons until it is confirmed that the child does not have monkeypox or COVID-19.
- Contact the local health department for any known or suspected cases of monkeypox or COVID-19.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, those of us responsible for the care of children in the parish have a profound obligation to educate them that monkeypox is not a disease that affects only LGBTQIA+ people, even though it is mostly affecting them right now. Every disease has a particular population in which it is first recognized. The people of Wuhan are not responsible for COVID-19, farmers are not responsible for anthrax, and LGBTQIA+ people are not responsible for monkeypox. Even our youngest members can learn that, when we first were learning about HIV and AIDS, many churches sinned by treating LGBTQIA+ people as though the illness was their fault and that their generation can lead the way in doing differently now, showing special kindness to LGBTQIA+ people in their congregation and community.