A gay hot spot, an outbreak of a contagious disease, public panic — all the elements of the summertime COVID outbreak in Provincetown, Mass., were tailor-made for the experience and knowledge of Dr. Demetre Daskalakis. The former deputy commissioner for the Division of Disease Control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Daskalakis was hired late last year as director of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In his previous jobs — which include positions at New York’s Bellevue Hospital and the Mount Sinai Health System — the gay doctor engendered much goodwill from the LGBTQ+ health community thanks to his compassionate and attention-getting interventions, which included dressing in drag to administer meningitis vaccines.
Daskalakis’s outstanding reputation encouraged local health crusader Michael Donnelly to reach out to him about the surge in P-town coronavirus infections — including so-called breakthrough infections affecting the fully vaccinated — that emerged after the Fourth of July. Daskalakis wasted no time alerting the Massachusetts Department of Health and other officials at the CDC, who also sprung into action and began contact tracing and other containment measures. The results of the CDC’s investigation into the P-town cluster changed the department’s official guidance on vaccinated individuals and gave health officials new insight into the dangers of COVID’s Delta variant, which would soon spread nationwide.
Disarmingly modest, Daskalakis took little credit for the P-town findings, reserving praise for Donnelly.
“It’s quite certain that if we didn’t have the heads-up from Michael — because of what he was seeing among his friends with his statistician hat on — we wouldn’t have heard about it as rapidly,” Daskalakis told NPR.
In his job as HIV prevention czar at the CDC, Daskalakis is truly treading new ground. The full effect of COVID on people living with HIV is still largely a mystery and the correct course of action a moving target. This fall, Daskalakis was pushed by many to determine whether people living with HIV should get a booster shot of the COVID vaccine. The doctor refused to make a determination until more findings could be analyzed, telling The Bay Area Reporter in August, “The bottom line is that there’s a very clear statement that folks should talk to their health care providers. People can have different levels of being immunocompromised, and that’s something that can be discussed between a person in care and their physician. Meanwhile, for individuals out of care who are untreated, [the booster] should be a no-brainer.”
Walking into a national health position in the middle of a spiraling pandemic sounds intimidating to even the most qualified individual, but Daskalakis projected confidence and resolve as he stepped into the role. He told Plus (The Advocate’s sister publication) he was “excited” for the opportunity and said the position was his “dream job.” He also said he was determined to help the nation reduce new HIV transmissions by “at least 90 percent by 2030.” Daskalakis understands his position involves more than increasing testing and treatment. It also means taking on entrenched injustices that help HIV maintain its destructive presence 40 years after first being identified.
“To end the epidemic, we must have a clear focus on the STI and hepatitis [epidemics] and we must address the systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia that hamper our progress,” Daskalakis said. “I’m thrilled that we are going to approach addressing HIV like a new outbreak all over again so we can end it.”
This story is part of The Advocate’s 2021 People of the Year issue, which is out on newsstands November 23, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.