But increasingly, right-wing critics have portrayed him as a caricature, far different from the actor who roams the Italian countryside in search of appetizing dishes. Scrolling through Daskalakis’ Instagram feed, they pulled out shirtless Thirst Trap posts showing off his tattoos – accusing him of being a Satanist.
Daskalakas makes no effort to hide that he is different from the usual government employee. Even today, he eschews the baggy blue suit, opting for black skinny jeans, a gray jacket, a red textured tie and his signature black specs.
His tears are not because he is being targeted by ultra-conservatives. Instead, they hit him as he explained why he got into public health, recalling his desire to focus on HIV/AIDS. It’s a desire that eventually landed him in the highest seats of political power, and one that in recent weeks has brought him under intense scrutiny amid criticism of the administration’s response to monkeypox.
As a child, he always knew he wanted to be a doctor (“Fisher Price play kit,” he muses). But it wasn’t until he was an undergraduate at Columbia University that he experienced an epiphany.
He was working on a large exhibit of the AIDS memorial quilt, he said, and was instructed to fly to San Francisco to bring back a “roll of carpet that looked like a body in a shroud.” On the opening day of the exhibit for the finished quilt, he saw men his own age – people who should have been enjoying their 20s – come in, coughing and raging with a disease very likely to kill them.
“My job will be to never let anyone get HIV or, if people are HIV-positive, to make sure they don’t get sick and die. It hit me like that,” he recalls snapping his fingers.
For nearly 20 years, Daskalakas has worked in this field, most recently as director of the HIV/AIDS prevention division of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a job he took on early in the administration. Now his role is to take his experiences and lessons learned from the fight against communicable diseases and sexually transmitted infections and apply them to the current outbreak of monkeypox to prevent it from becoming the next national health crisis. permed.
He and his boss, Robert Fenton, the longtime Federal Emergency and Management Agency official called upon to be the monkeypox czar, took over as the administration was battered for its slowness to response and the delay in providing tests and vaccines.
Daskalakis says when he got the call about the White House job, he originally didn’t want it.
“Oh no, not yet,” was his first thought, he said. “Another thing that’s going to take me away from why I’m doing public health.”
He had just completed years of helping manage the Covid-19 response in New York, as well as managing a meningitis outbreak there. He was tired and, more importantly, he wanted to focus on HIV prevention.
Ultimately, the parallels between the original HIV epidemic and monkeypox — particularly its disproportionate impact on the queer community — led him to revisit the work.
“I can’t really be upset about being removed from HIV, because if I crack the code to become young black and Latino, [men who have sex with men], gay, bisexual or transgender or people of gender diversity…to get vaccinated,” he says, pausing but hinting: if he effectively reaches this community, it could also be a game-changer for HIV prevention. HIV. He says that before he started work, Biden specifically told him he wanted to make sure the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on LGBTQ people of color didn’t happen again with monkeypox.
Daskalakis and Fenton have been recognized within the administration for coordinating government efforts among the various health agencies involved in the monkeypox response. They were both among the strongest voices urging the administration to declare a public health emergency as soon as possible, which Biden did three days after their nominations were notified.
Criticism against the response has not ceased, however. Gregg Gonsalves, a global health activist and epidemiologist at Yale University, praised Daskalakis and Fenton’s efforts, but wondered “what power and influence they have to shape the course of this epidemic in the world.” coming “.
“It’s not about their personal characteristics, it’s about the bureaucratic power they have to effect change,” he said.
Daskalakis used his CDC connections, which clashed with the White House and other agencies during the Covid response, to align administration initiatives and track the spread of the disease. But his toughest job, according to senior officials, has been rebuilding trust among the frustrated and scared LGBTQ community at the slow response.
“Demetre was able to play an important role when he identified areas of friction, areas where quick improvements can be made to the process to build that trust,” Fenton said in an interview.
Over the past month, monkeypox rates have slowed and vaccine availability has increased. But the same goes for the demand for vaccinations. According to recent CDC data, more than 460,000 doses have been administered in 34 states and New York. This represents 14% of the 3.2 million doses needed to fully vaccinate the 1.6 million people who the government says are at high risk. But despite a pilot program of using big events to deliver jabs last month, the administration sees supply outpacing demand.
The administration faced something similar with Covid-19: Just because the supply was there didn’t mean high-risk groups could get their hands on it. But Daskalakis says it’s a model he has experience with, especially with communities of color. In New York, he was well known for visiting bathhouses and sex clubs to perform STI tests and help educate his clients.
“He’s not one of those health bobbleheads in white coats…disconnected from [the community] and waving at someone,” says Kenyon Farrow, managing director of advocacy and organizing at Prep4All in New York. “People actually respond to him for that reason.”
But it also made Daskalakis an easy target for the conservative media, which hit him with a barrage of attacks after he appeared at the White House press briefing last week.
They included tweets like the one alleging that “Joe Biden named a Satanist to the White House” because of his pentagram tattoo. Another tweet featured a photo of him shirtless and asked, “seriously?” Many of the images were pulled from his Instagram page, which is full of shirtless photos showing more than 30 other tattoos. A post with numerous photos of him read, “Dr. Daskalakis’ social media presence reveals a penchant for pentagrams and other satanic symbols.
Daskalakis laughs at the charge. For the record, he confirms that he is not a Satanist. “I wish I was that interesting.”
As with all of his body art and shirtless photos, he’s content with a touch of vanity. “I spent a lot of money on my tattoos and a lot of time in the gym,” he explains. “I show it.”
But the reaction to the photos has also raised broader questions: whether press scrutiny compels otherwise qualified people into public office; but primarily on whether government bureaucrats would benefit from real experiences and greater accessibility.
Daskalakis notes that the pentagram tattoo on his left pec reads, “I believe there is light even in the darkest place.” He says it represents both his past as a bullied child and the AIDS crisis.
He also points out that none of the articles ever mentioned the large tattoo of Jesus on his stomach, inspired by the Greek Orthodox church he grew up in in Washington, DC.
He says the attacks are not a distraction. But that seems hard to believe. He has since made his Instagram page private.
Unlike most public health officials, Daskalakis views his thirst traps as part of his job, not separate from it. A photo of him ripping off his leather jacket, exposing his bare chest, was featured in a ‘Bare it All’ ad campaign for the New York City Health Department when he was the division’s deputy commissioner. city disease control. He said such images gave him a level of trust with the people he was trying to reach that other doctors could not replicate.
“I don’t care because otherwise I’d be rocking back and forth and [someone] stroke my non-existent hair,” he says.
While he was being vetted for his current role, the White House reviewed Daskalakis’ social media presence, an official with knowledge of the process said. But that caused no hesitation in the West Wing, the official said. On the contrary, Daskalakis’ status as a proud gay man was seen as an advantage in the administration’s efforts to bolster his credibility with the LGBTQ community.
While Daskalakis admits to being “pathologically in good spirits”, his disposition darkens as he assesses the elements of the public’s reaction to monkeypox. As with HIV, he sees the stigma against the queer community growing.
He says his spirit often returns to the AIDS quilt, as well as the family of Andy Grunebaum, a man who died of AIDS-related complications. Grunebaum’s family made a large donation in his name to New York University, where Daskalakis was an assistant professor at the time.
The only requirement was that the grant recipient had to work to fight AIDS. Daskalakis used some of the money to earn his master’s degree in public health.
“A family, a mother looking at you saying, “We’re going to give you this, but your job is not to let people suffer and die. That’s exactly what I signed up for,” says Daskalakis.