Ask Tim Hickernell how he’s doing and the New York City man will tell you he’s “seen better days” as he works to recover from a bout of monkeypox, a rare disease usually confined to Africa that is now seeing its largest-ever outbreak in the United States.
The actor is one of at least 30 people who have tested positive for the virus in New York City since early May. Almost all of the NYC cases, which represent more than 20% of the total diagnosed nationwide in the latest outbreak, involve men having sex with men.
That’s what happened in Hickernell’s case. He says a sexual partner told him he felt he may have contracted the virus, which comes from the same family of viruses that cause smallpox, but that the partner was struggling to find available testing in the city.
It was six days after the exposure, Hickernell said. He checked his body. There was some mild redness, a light rash and irritation. Then he saw three circular lesions near his groin. Hickernell says they still felt OK at that point but was “freaking out, of course.”
Later, more than a week after the sexual encounter through which Hickernell believes he was exposed, he says he was hit with harsher symptoms – a fever, fatigue, pain behind the eyes, congestion. There was another outbreak. Three sores became more.
“I pretty much didn’t get out of bed for three days,” Hinkernell said. “The crazy thing with this is they are changing. The sores evolve over time.”
One emerged on his hand two weeks after the exposure. He still has the remnants of one on his chin. They started out as a little rash, then became circular and started to pus, Hickernell says. Now, he says he’s dealing with swelling and swollen lymph nodes.
Symptoms take 7-14 days to show, but can take up to 21 days to show
Hickernell, who mainly spent his contagious period in isolation at home, says he tried to get tested earlier this month but ran into the same problems that the partner who informed him about the exposure did. He says he was discouraged by 311 dispatchers that transferred him from one line to another and a lack of easy access to information.
That information, and testing, is now more widespread, and the network is expected to expand further in the coming weeks, which Hickernell says is “vital” to containment.
But he says more education needs to be done. For example, you’re not contagious if you’re not symptomatic, unlike COVID, Hickernell says he learned. In the six days before he was notified of his exposure, he kissed another person. He hung out with his roommate. He takes solace in knowing now that he wasn’t contagious at the time.
That’s partly why Hickernell is sharing his story – to help other New Yorkers trying to navigate the same “murky waters,” assess the symptoms and get whatever help they need as expeditiously as possible. More public warnings are needed, Hickernell says.
And the New Yorkers need to look out for one another.
“Check your bodies. Check someone else’s body for sores,” Hickernell said. “It sounds like a lot but you have to treat this almost as a COVID situation. We’re all traumatized and fatigued by that but people have to take this seriously. I’m an underreported case.”
Recognizing Hickernell is likely one of many New York City health officials are amping up their game. They said Thursday they’d start offering the monkeypox vaccine amid the expanding outbreak, which is now up to at least 156 cases in roughly half of the US states, according to the latest CDC data. The actual count though is likely higher.
Demand for the vaccine in the five boroughs cut walk-ins short on Day 1. Health officials said before 2 pm Thursday that all appointments had been booked through Monday, and that was within three hours of them announcing the doses were available.
Monkeypox was first discovered in 1958 when outbreaks occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research – resulting in its name. (What you need to know about monkeypox.) It comes from the same family of viruses as smallpox.
Now people recover from monkeypox within weeks, but the disease is fatal for up to 1 in 10 people, according to the World Health Organization.
The first case in a human was reported in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which still has the majority of infections. Other African countries where it has been found: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Liberia, Nigeria, Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone.
Monkeypox outbreaks in the United States are rare. The CDC says the risk to the general public remains low, but it advises close contact be avoided with those who are sick, including those suffering from skin or genital lesions, as well as sick or dead animals. Anyone showing symptoms should reach out to a provider for guidance.
The CDC is also urging healthcare providers to watch for patients who have rashes consistent with the disease, regardless of whether they have traveled or have other risk factors. See more information from the travel notice here.
We already have vaccines and treatments approved for monkeypox