Mpls. A flight attendant with symptoms of monkeypox said she was struggling to pass the test

Joan Sullivan has cold symptoms and a pimple-like rash on her body, and it’s unclear whether it’s due to monkeypox or not.

The 29-year-old flight attendant from Minneapolis struggled for five days to get tests from the Minnesota Department of Health and two designated clinics in the Twin Cities. While clinics are encouraging men who have sex with other men to get tested — a high-risk group that accounts for nearly all of the state’s 55 known infections — Sullivan said he worries that focus may miss cases that are out of the norm.

“I care and I want to do the right thing, but this is my fourth phone call and I don’t have any results or testing scheduled,” she said. “If I was 19, I would be done.”

Monkeypox is not considered a sexually transmitted infection, but 94% of the first US public health cases are young men who have had recent sexual or intimate contact. The virus is usually spread through physical contact with the fluids of infected people or through contaminated sheets, towels, or other surfaces.

Although severe cases are rare, Minnesota is increasing access to tests and vaccines in an effort to slow the spread of the virus before it reaches vulnerable populations such as the elderly.

Red Door Clinic in Minneapolis and 555 Clinic in St. Petersburg. Paul was promoted last week as a test site to provide easy and familiar access to a key risk group of men who have sex with other men. However, any clinic can swab the rash on suspected patients and send the samples to a state public health laboratory or to commercial laboratories such as the Mayo Clinic for results.

In mid-July, the state announced that doctors no longer needed a permit to collect and submit samples for testing. The state has enough laboratory capacity to run the tests, but clinics have limited outreach and sometimes triage patients with a high-risk exposure rather than those with a suspicious rash, Health Department spokesman Doug Schultz said.

“Just as anyone can be tested for monkeypox if they meet clinical guidelines, anyone can be tested for monkeypox,” the statement said, noting that the two Minnesota cases were women.

The collection process is a bit more complicated and requires sterile synthetic tampons rather than cotton. “Poor sampling techniques have led to inconclusive results for several samples collected over the past several weeks,” the state said in an alert to doctors.

After not being able to reach anyone at Red Door or the 555 clinic since Thursday, Sullivan went to the primary care clinic on Monday. The provider cleaned the wounds and sent samples to a state lab, with results expected a week after he was first tested. That evening, he received a call from the Red Door Clinic.

Until this year, the monkeypox virus was considered endemic in parts of Africa and spread mainly from animals to humans, not from human to human. It causes typical cold symptoms, but also causes acne-like rashes that are painful and itchy and can lead to other complications, such as blindness if it occurs near the eyes.

Unlike the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the monkeypox virus is unlikely to spread through the air or respiratory droplets — unless someone has been in close contact for several hours with an infected person who has sores in and around the mouth.

Minnesota expects to receive 7,600 doses of the monkeypox vaccine by the end of summer, reserved for people who are at high risk of exposure through work or sexual activity, or who have been in close contact with an infected person.

Sullivan said he wondered if he had been infected on recent flights to England or California or on long-haul flights. A person in her close social network also reported symptoms.

“Everybody in the bubble is stuck in their homes until we can figure out who’s sick,” said Sullivan, who also tested negative for COVID-19.

A week into her illness, Sullivan complained of “the worst breakouts in years,” she said. A paramedic suspected that his sexual partner might have monkeypox. In her isolation, Sullivan entertained herself and others with TikTok videos, including videos of cats and other strategies to stop scratching her rashes. One update got 130,000 views.

Sullivan said he hopes the state will clarify testing procedures for doctors and that Minnesota clinics will speed up sample collection to prevent an outbreak.

The Red Door has been busy since it was announced as a monkeypox testing facility, but there are no restrictions on testing people with the infection, said Allison Thrash, a spokeswoman for Hennepin County Public Health Services, which runs the clinic. “Some people may not be able to get through to us right away, but everyone who calls will call back.”

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