AUSTIN (KXAN) — A health care worker who contracted monkeypox said Monday he’s applying for short-term disability so that he can remain home from work for a prolonged period of time and safely recover from his infection.
Ryan Conway, a 31-year-old occupational therapist in Austin, said his symptoms began on Aug. 12 when he felt like he had the flu and developed a 102° fever. The first lesion appeared on one of his pinky fingers on Aug. 15, which prompted him to get a test for monkeypox, and since then more of these pimple-like blisters have appeared on his hands, face and abdomen.
However, a week after taking his test, Conway said he has not yet received confirmation of his infection from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I don’t want to sound crass in any way, but this doesn’t feel like a first-world experience,” Conway said.
He said his employer is understanding about his situation, but he needs documentation of his diagnosis to be able to finish applying for extended leave from his job. CDC experts said the illness can last two to four weeks because there needs to be enough time for the rash to heal, the scabs to fall off and a fresh layer of skin to form.
“I still have 99% of mine,” Conway said about his lesions, “so I’m still really early on in this process.”
He’s still unsure who exposed him to monkeypox or how he became infected with the virus because, as far as he knows, none of his friends, recent dates or patients have had it.
“I’m at a loss for words on this one,” Conway said Monday. “I probably now looking back on it would probably just continue to live as normally as possible because I feel like I did do everything that I was supposed to do. I didn’t go out. I avoided things.”
Before his infection happened, Conway said he wanted to be as safe as possible, so he even sought out getting the JYNNEOS vaccine, which is approved for prevention of monkeypox disease. However, he couldn’t find any availability locally due to the limited supply and eligibility requirements.
He wondered if he should get the vaccine even after he recovers. A spokesperson for Austin Public Health (APH) said his doctor would offer the best advice about that, but pointed out the CDC does not recommend vaccination right now for those diagnosed with monkeypox.
“Having had monkeypox once likely confers immune protection. Immune protection would reduce the chance of getting monkeypox again in the future,” the spokesperson said in an email Monday. “Having monkeypox confers immunity to monkeypox however a patient’s doctor may recommend a vaccination if someone is immunocompromised.”
Since becoming sick, Conway’s doctor told him how difficult it would be to get treatment in the form of the drug tecovirimat, most commonly known as TPOXX. The CDC, in partnership with FDA, has made it easier for doctors to prescribe TPOXX under the expanded access investigational new drug designation. The CDC noted, “The streamlined process allows healthcare providers to start treatment before the paperwork is submitted, and reduces the number of required forms, patient samples, photos, and gives patients the option to see their doctor virtually.”
Conway also said he has not heard from APH or any contact tracers since he took his monkeypox test last week, which he called disappointing. A department spokesperson said, without knowing specifics about this particular case, a call would come from an unknown number, adding that contact tracing can come from the state or from local health departments.
“Case investigators would reach out to interview the patient and identify known contacts for monitoring and to get them vaccine/treatment,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Conway is remaining isolated at home to wait out the course of his infection. His friends are dropping off supplies and other things he needs outside his door. He’s thankful the symptoms are less severe than another Austin man who spoke to KXAN in June about the excruciating pain his monkeypox infection caused him. The other patient, however, went through similar difficulties accessing treatment.
Conway said it’s important he share his experience because it could lead to change, especially with medication and vaccination hard to come by for most.
“I don’t have any shame around having monkeypox. Even if I did something that was high risk behavior and caught it, you can’t live your life in shame,” Conway said. “I think it’s important for us to have been affected by this now to have our voices be heard. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, right? No one’s gonna do anything and start to advocate for anybody if no one says anything, so I’m OK with being a little bit loud to get my needs met and someone else’s needs met down the road.”