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HHS to study lifting ban on gay blood donors

Four areas of concern cited

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Sen. John Kerry (photo courtesy of kerry.senate.gov)

The Department of Health & Human Services has identified four areas of study to pursue before the regulatory ban on gay men donating blood can be lifted.

In a question-and-answer document requested by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) made public Tuesday, the department outlined steps that the Blood, Organ, and Tissue Safety Working Group have identified as necessary before gay and bisexual man are allowed to donate blood.

Proposed studies are aimed to address the following four issues:

* how the risk of blood transmissible diseases in the current donor population relate to risk factors in donors;

* the root cause of Quarantine Release Errors, or the accidental release of blood not cleared for use;

* if potential donors correctly understand the current questionnaire and if men who have sex with men would comply with modified deferral criteria; and

* if alternative screening strategy, such as pre- and post-qualifying donation infectious disease testing, for men who have sex with men would assure blood safety while enabling collection of data that could demonstrate safe blood collection.

Under current regulation, men who have had sex with other men since 1977 — even once — aren’t eligible to donate blood.

Last year, the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety & Availability for HHS voted to recommend that the ban not be changed and cited insufficient scientific data to support revision to the policy. However, the committee also recommended additional research to support a policy allowing low-risk gay and bisexual men to donate blood.

The Q&A prepared by HHS asserts that the department is evaluating these four concerns. To determine the relationship between the risk of transmitting blood diseases with risk factors in donors, HHS has this year instituted a study of baseline data. To determine potential errors in release of blood not cleared for use, HHS plans to hold a public workshop with blood establishments and stakeholders later this year.

“The Department’s Blood, Organ, Tissue Senior Executive Council is currently assessing how the above mentioned studies can be supported with limited resources to include long term monitoring through a national hemovigilance program (monitoring or surveillance of the blood supply and blood recipients),” the document states.

Asked whether HHS officials foresee an end to the gay donor ban, HHS doesn’t explicitly say whether the ban will come to end, but that the department is willing to revisit the issue after more information is gathered.

“The Department has worked to develop a plan that will yield scientific data that are currently needed to re-evaluate the policy based on the ACBSA,” HHS states. “When these studies are complete, the Department is committed to a full evidence-based evaluation of the policy. If the data indicate that a change is possible while protecting the blood supply, we will consider a change to the policy.”

In statements, Kerry and Quigley applauded HHS for taking additional steps to lift the ban on gay blood donors.

Kerry said he’s been “working on this a long time in a serious way” and is glad HHS “responded with concrete steps to finally remove this policy from the books.”

“HHS is doing their due-diligence and we plan to stay focused on the end game — a safe blood supply and an end to this discriminatory ban,” Kerry said.

Quigley said the announcement from HHS means “we’re moving in the direction of finally ending this antiquated and discriminatory policy.”

“Sen. Kerry and I will continue to push for a behavior-based screening process both in the name of fairness and a safer blood supply,” Quigley said.

LGBT advocates also praised HHS for taking steps toward allowing gay and bisexual men to donate blood.

Nathan Schaefer, director of public policy at the New York-based Gay Men’s Health Clinic, said he’s “pleased to see” the U.S. government take “critical steps to review outdated blood donation policies.”

“As this research agenda is pursued, GMHC will continue educating the public about the negative consequences of current blood donation policies, and advocating for revised policies that would allow low-risk gay men to donate blood and maintain the highest standard of blood safety,” Schaefer said.

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29 Comments

29 Comments

  1. Katie Murphy

    July 27, 2011 at 11:03 pm

    I’ve read that blood is tested at least twice. As a donor, I know they send you the results re any diseases you might have. Its all done so no one except the recipient knows who’s name it tied to any result.

    A note said the chance of missing a diseased blood sample is about 1 in 30 million. do it 3 times and you would have a chance of missing about 1 in a billion. Cant get much safer then that.

    And some blood types are desperately needed, esp O, which is compatible with all other types as well.

    it appears the ban is now just another example of fear and hate by some people. If only those people were as rare as the chance of contaminated blood being used.

    • A.C.

      May 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm

      So, to reiterate what you are stating… only gay people have diseases? To be frank, I think that concept is incredibly preposterous. As a blood donor as well as a previous blood bank employee, there is absolutely no reason to defer homosexual men from donating blood. It should be based on a persons risk for HIV/Hep, the more sex partners you have means you have a greater risk. On the other hand, a low-risk couple (male and female, male and male, female and female, etc) has little to no risk of contracting HIV/Hep. Homosexuality itself does not give you the virus. I really hope you can open your mind and enlighten yourself regarding this topic.

  2. BitterClinger

    July 28, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    I am at a loss for words….. the “gay” community is practically forcing the FDA to end a ban on gays giving blood, even though there are multiple risks involved. It almost seems like the “gay”community is willing to murder people with tainted blood in order to force-feed their agenda down my throat. I am holding out hope that this minority of people will rethink their stance and put the lives of others ahead of their need to turn America into a virtual homosexual utopia.

    • tj

      September 3, 2011 at 1:29 am

      are you ******* insane there is more straight people with stds then there is gay peeople all girls and guys are ***** and you guys can get hiv to from a man or a woman

  3. Louis Stouch

    July 28, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    You people are in denial. What dont you understand about this:

    Men who have sex with other men, including gay and bisexual men, have an HIV infection rate 60 times higher than that of the general population, the FDA says. They have an infection rate 800 times higher than first-time blood donors and 8,000 times higher than the rate of repeat blood donors. Tests cannot pick up a new HIV infection in the blood with 100 percent accuracy; because blood is often pooled, many people may be at risk from a single infected donor.

    You can have your rights to do whatever you want ot each other no problem. But when you IMPINGE ON MY RIGHTS TO A CLEAN BLOOD SUPPLY, thats way outa line.

    \Why would we run the risk? Why should we spend the money to test blood THREE TIMES just to satisfy the homosexual lobby?

    Do you want to infect other people?

  4. Louis Stouch

    July 28, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    The homosexual lobby was very aggressive in quoting policies from other countries militaries that allowed open homosexuality. if its good enough for them, it should be good enough for us. Right?

    Here is a list of other countries that prohibit blood donation by homosexuals.

    Gay blood donation policies around the world

    Deferral based on unsafe sexual activity
    – Spain and Italy

    Deferral of all gay and bisexual men from blood donation for one year after sexual activity
    – Argentina, Australia, Japan, Hungary

    Deferral for five years
    – South Africa, New Zealand (reduced from 10 years in mid 2008)

    Indefinite, lifetime or effective lifetime deferral
    – US, UK, Germany, Hong Kong, Canada (confirmed by a 2007 report

    Tit for tat, argument CLOSED.

  5. Morgan

    July 28, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Well, what’s disturbing is that IV drug users, prostitutes, and men who sleep with prostitutes can donate blood and that a gay man, whose been in a committed relationship for years and has been checked for HIV, cannot.
    But the real question EVERYONE should be asking is, is the Red Cross checking blood or going by people’s word? If they are checking blood, then what’s the problem? Also, if you are in an accident and an organ donor, do they check your organs for blood diseases and such before implanting them into you or your loved ones? From what I’ve heard, the answer to that question is pretty shocking. Also, are we still living in the time where people think HIV/AIDS is just a gay disease? It may be more active in the gay community, but they get themselves tested. Heterosexuals are way more likely to have it and unknowingly infect others before they even realize they have it themselves, all because of the perception that it only affects gay men.
    I work in the healthcare industry, and most of my patients are women with HIV/AIDS. And most of them got it from cheating husbands and drug use. Imagine how many of them may have donated blood.
    So “BitterClinger” and “Louis”, even with a ban in place, our blood supply is most assuredly already tainted–and not by a little.

  6. Louis Stouch

    July 28, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    well, “argument closed” was a little strong – sorry. still, I just cant get on board with this. why take the risk?

  7. Louis Stouch

    July 28, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    Morgan, the origins of the disease are without doubt the gay community. Thus the term GRID – gay related immune defficiency – which was accepted by the medical community until pressured by the gay lobby to make the change to AIDS.

    I give blood, and if I am not mistaken intravenous drug users are excluded.

    Look the whole point is that the testing is not perfect. If testing is not perfect, then whay are we having this discussion? Obviously this is not about the blood supply and increasing it – it is a political statement.

    The gay lobby won DADT. Gay marriage is making headway. However, neither of those issues were potential public safety problems. If the gay community were “responsible”, I dont believe they would be making such a big deal of this. After all, the very small size of the gay community is not going to make much of difference to the blood supply overall.

    And in fact, if the ban is lifted, I will stop giving blood. And pray that I never need a transfusion.

    • DCAV8R

      July 29, 2011 at 12:09 pm

      Louis, perhaps you should read the book “And the Band Played On”. That will enlighten you as to the origins of GRID -> HIV -> AIDS. The origins are in Africa -> Europe -> NYC -> Global infection. Do some dam*n research before blubbering about a subject you know nothing about.

    • Bryce

      July 29, 2011 at 4:58 pm

      Praying doesn’t do anything… so it wont matter. “After all, the very small size of the gay community is not going to make much of difference to the blood supply overall. ” Sorry where I live we make up 13% of the community and me and alot of my friends would give blood, we are tested for infections far more often than any hetero-sexual person. We are also currently more likely to use protection when doing sexual acts. These bans were put in during a time where aids and hiv were rampant in our community, that is no longer the case and the ban is outdated, period.

  8. Kyle Carlson

    July 29, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    If you are interested in learning more about the Gay Blood Ban, please check out http://SavingLivesWithHelpfulGuys.com. This website is an educational resource center for policy directors, civil rights activists, students, members of the medical community, and the public at large who are dedicated to safely and sensibly reforming the Food and Drug Administration’s Gay Blood Ban.

  9. Steve Sushner

    July 31, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    Comparing the infection rate of men who have sex with men as compared to first time donors or repeat donors is the wrong question. The proper question is what is the infection rate of men who have sex with men solely in single partner relationships for the last ____ years as compared to first time donors or repeat donors (or alternatively, what is the infection rate or men who have protected sex with men for the last ___ years as compared to first time donors or repeat donors).

    To current questionnaire, however is grossly flawed. Under the current questionnaire a man who had sex with 100 different women in the last year (all protected sex) would be permitted to donate, unless he self determined that he engaged “in other high risk activity.” So using the current questionnaire, the correct comparison would be what is the infection rate of men who have sex with solely in single partner relationship, with protection, for the last _____ years, compared to men who had protected sex with 100 (or 1000) different women in the last year.

    The fact that gay men are not allowed to self identify that their behavior may be high risk, is what makes the current questionnaire discriminatory. The fact that the questionnaire doesn’t ask the proper question is what HHS needs to change.

  10. James C.

    August 10, 2011 at 5:22 am

    Wow, a veritable nut farm in the comments. There’s nothing magic about gay blood. If you test it for HIV, you’ve tested it.

    Currently, a straight person who has had sex with 1000 partners, never used protection, and has never been tested for HIV, can donate blood, even though they are very likely to have HIV.

    But a gay person who has had sex with one partner one year ago, used protection, just took a test and is HIV negative, cannot give blood.

    That is not science. That is not being safe just in case. That is fear. And not even rational fear. The majority of new HIV cases are among African Americans, yet black people are not banned from donating blood. Their blood is simply tested, like everybody else’s.

    This policy went into effect before HIV testing. We now test blood for HIV.

    Test the blood, don’t ban it.

  11. Charlie

    December 28, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    What gets my goat is I lived in Germany for 10 years while in the service during the mad cow scare over 20 years ago. Red Cross prohibits blood donations from people that lived there during that time frame. But, yet they want to accept blood from gays???

  12. Charlie

    December 28, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    What gets my goat is I lived in Germany for 10 years while in the service during the mad cow scare over 20 years ago. Red Cross prohibits blood donations from people that lived there during that time frame.

  13. Anonymous

    December 28, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    "However, the committee also recommended additional research to support a policy allowing low-risk gay and bisexual men to donate blood."

    What would be considered low risk. I don't want any of their blood , that for sure.

  14. Jack Vogel

    December 28, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    So now I can get AIDS from some fag, just to prove a political point. Great.

    • Diego Rosenberg

      December 28, 2012 at 6:16 pm

      Jack, you can avoid the risk if you stop being a catcher.

    • Jack Vogel

      December 28, 2012 at 6:29 pm

      ROFLMAO! You fags are so predictable. Even as I typed that, I KNEW somebody would come on and say that my problem is that I'm really a fag in denial. That's called projection, son. Read Jung.

    • Anonymous

      December 28, 2012 at 8:35 pm

      Jack Vogel you can catch it from your various girlfriends just as easily. HIV an AIDs aren't just a gay thing.

    • Jack Vogel

      December 28, 2012 at 8:39 pm

      Here it is again! How do you know I have various girlfriends? I ouldbe monogamous, celibate, or a polygamist for all you know. For a bunch of peopl who hate being stereotyped, you folks sure make a lot of assumptions.

  15. ConcernedRN

    December 28, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    This is one thing that should not be made political. If the minds in charge of making these decisions, i.e. the ACBSA, find it too risky to allow the donation, then that should be the end of the discussion. The tests are NOT perfect. I’ve seen patients who have been infected by tainted blood. And I’m not talking about blood they received 20 or 30 years ago, but recently. I’ll repeat: tests are NOT perfect. We have to do what is necessary to keep people safe. I work with cancer patients who receive 4-8 units of blood a week, and platelets on a daily basis. I shudder to think of them getting another disease because of tainted blood. They’re fighting a battle for their lives. No one’s political agenda should in any way decrease their chances of winning that battle. We’re not talking about anyone’s right to live they way they want to live; we’re talking about protecting other people from an increased risk of contracting a deadly disease. Donating blood is not a right or a privilege. It is a voluntary task requested of those who are fortunate enough to be perfectly healthy and who live a life that is deemed by the scientific minds in charge to be low-risk. I consider it to be a necessary evil. No one likes getting a blood transfusion. It’s risky even if the blood is from the cleanest, healthiest person on the planet. Please do not increase the worry of any patient for the sake of saying “I have the right”. The only rights that should come into play here are those of the patients receiving the blood.

  16. Anonymous

    December 28, 2012 at 6:21 pm

  17. Anonymous

    December 28, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    This has nothing to do with discrimination. It has to do with the Health and Safety of American citizens. The reason for the ban is because there is a greater risk of HIV and other diseases being transmitted. It has nothing to do with hate or discrimination. This ban cannot be lifted based on groups shouting "hate and discrimination".

  18. Jack Vogel

    December 28, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    Ah, so I've been flagged? Yep, that's the homosexual agenda. Free speeh. As long as it promotes our agenda.

  19. Trent E.

    December 28, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Would you rather get your blood from Glen Quagmire, or Neil Patrick Harris?

  20. April Hunt

    December 28, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    I DON'T want gay guy blood! Political correctness…..here is a great example of it actually KILLING people! GREAT!

  21. Gayle Lewis

    December 29, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    Not against gays at all, to each their own. But I am against lifting the ban for donating blood, it will cost the taxpayers more money because they will have to do extra testing before putting it in blood bank. To risky to human lives (unless it is only for them and not everybody).

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Utah

VIDEO: Utah deal promoted as national model for LGBTQ rights, religious liberty

Data finds state has 2nd highest support for LGBTQ rights

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(Screen capture via YouTube)

A new video from the premier LGBTQ group in Utah, challenging the idea LGBTQ rights must be at odds with religious liberty, promotes an agreement reached in the state as a potential model to achieve a long sought-after update to civil rights law at the federal level.

The video, published Friday by Equality Utah, focuses on a 2015 agreement in Utah between the supporters of LGBTQ rights and the Mormon Church to enact a compromise acceptable to both sides. The agreement by those two sides led to an LGBTQ civil rights law in the state, which has Republican control of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, says in the video dialogue is key to achieving meaningful success, whether its among the people of Utah, a state legislature or lawmakers in Congress.

“When you are working with LGBT rights in a state like Utah, and you want to advance legal equality, you can’t do it without working with Republicans, with conservative, with people of faith,” Williams says.

Williams, speaking with the Washington Blade over a Zoom call, said the main audience for the video is people on “the center right and the center left” willing to listen to other side when it comes to LGBTQ rights and religious liberty.

“People that have the courage to reach out to each other, and sit down across from each other and say, ‘Hey look, let’s hammer this out,” Williams said. “That’s who my audience is.”

Not only did Utah enact non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, but the state under a Republican governor administratively banned widely discredited conversion therapy for youth. When lawmakers proposed legislation that would ban transgender youth from competing in school sports, the proposal was scuttled when Gov. Spencer Cox (whom Williams called a “super Mormon”) said he’d veto it after it came to his desk.

Marina Gomberg, a former board for Equality Utah, is another voice in the video seeking dispel the narrative religious liberty and LGBTQ rights are in conflict.

“in order to protect LGBTQ people, we don have to deny religious liberty, and in order to provide protections for religious liberties, we don’t have to deny LGBTQ people,” Gomberg says. “The idea that we do is a fallacy that Utah has dismantled.”

In July, new polling demonstrated the surprisingly the Utah, despite being a conservative state, has the second highest percentage of state population in support for non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. The data Public Religion Research Institute from 77 percent of Utah residents support LGBTQ people, which is just behind New Hampshire at 81 percent.

Tyler Deaton, senior adviser for the pro-LGBTQ American Unity Fund, said the Utah agreement demonstrates the possibility of reaching an agreement at the federal level once “second order” issues are put into perspective.

“The first order question has to be how are we winning the culture,” Deaton said. “Do people even want to pass the bill? And if they do, you then figure out the details.”

The American Unity Fund has helped promote as a path forward for LGBTQ non-discrimination at the federal level the Fairness for For All Act, legislation seeking to reach a middle ground on LGBTQ rights and religious freedom. Polling earlier this year found 57 percent of the American public back a bipartisan solution in Congress to advance LGBTQ civil rights.

Supporters of the Equality Act, the more established vehicle for LGBTQ rights before Congress, say the Fairness for For All Act would give too many carve-out for LGBTQ rights in the name of religious freedom. The Equality Act, however, is all but dead in Congress and has shown no movement in the U.S. Senate.

Skeptics of the Utah law would point out the law doesn’t address public accommodations, one of the more challenging aspects in the fight for LGBTQ rights and one or remaining gaps in civil rights protections for LGBTQ people in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County. As a result, it’s perfectly legal in Utah for a business owner to discriminate against LGBTQ coming as patrons.

Williams, however, shrugged off the idea the lack of public accommodations protections in Utah make the agreement in the state makes it any less of a model, making the case the spirit behind the deal is what matters.

“I think copying and pasting Utah’s law doesn’t work for lots of reasons,” Wililams said. “What’s most important is a model of collaboration because when you are sitting around the table with each other — Democrats and Republicans, LGBTQ people and people of faith — that’s when the transformation happens. That is when the mutual respect is really forged.”

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Venezuelan man with AIDS dies in ICE custody

Pablo Sánchez Gotopo passed away at Miss. hospital on Oct. 1

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Pablo Sanchez Gotopo, who was living with HIV/AIDS, died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Mississippi on Oct. 1, 2021. (Courtesy photo)

A Venezuelan man with AIDS died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody on Oct. 1.

An ICE press release notes Pablo Sánchez Gotopo, 40, died at Merit Health River Oaks in Flowood, Miss., which is a suburb of Jackson, the state capital. The press release notes the “preliminary cause of death was from complications with acute respiratory failure, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), pneumonia, acute kidney failure, anemia and COVID-19.”

ICE said U.S. Border Patrol took Sánchez into custody near Del Rio, Texas, on May 17. He arrived at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss., four days later.

“Upon arrival to an ICE facility, all detainees are medically screened and administered a COVID-19 test by ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) personnel,” said ICE in its press release. “Sánchez’s test results came back negative.”

The press release notes Sánchez on July 28 received another COVID-19 test after he “began showing symptoms of COVID-19.” ICE said he tested negative, but Adams County Detention Center personnel transferred him to a Natchez hospital “for additional advanced medical care.”

ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations staff in its New Orleans Field Office, according to the press release, “coordinated with hospital staff to arrange family visitation” after Sánchez’s “health condition deteriorated.” Sánchez was transferred to Merit Health River Oaks on Sept. 25.

“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” says the press release.

Venezuela’s political and economic crises have prompted more than 10,000 people with HIV to leave the country, according to the New York-based Aid for AIDS International.

Activists and health care service providers in Venezuela with whom the Washington Blade has spoken in recent years have said people with HIV/AIDS in the country have died because of a lack of antiretroviral drugs. Andrés Cardona, director of Fundación Ancla, a group in the Colombian city of Medellín that works with migrants and other vulnerable groups, told the Blade last month that many Venezuelans with HIV would have died if they hadn’t come to Colombia.

The Blade has not been able to verify a Venezuelan activist’s claim that Sánchez was gay. It is also not known why Sánchez decided to leave Venezuela and travel to the U.S.

ICE detainee with HIV described Miss. detention center as ‘not safe’

Activists and members of Congress continue to demand ICE release people with HIV/AIDS in their custody amid reports they don’t have adequate access to medications and other necessary medical treatment.

Two trans women with HIV—Victoria Arellano from Mexico and Roxsana Hernández from Honduras—died in ICE custody in 2007 and 2018 respectively. Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a trans woman with HIV who fled El Salvador, died in 2019, three days after ICE released her from a privately-run detention center.

The Blade in July 2020 interviewed a person with HIV who was in ICE custody at the Adams County Detention Center. The detainee said there was no social distancing at the privately-run facility and personnel were not doing enough to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

“It’s not safe,” they told the Blade.

The entrance to the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Elisabeth Grant-Gibson, a Natchez resident who supports ICE detainees and their families, on Wednesday told the Blade that she was able to visit the Adams County Detention Center and other ICE facilities in the Miss Lou Region of Mississippi and Louisiana from November 2019 until the suspension of in-person visitation in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

“Medical neglect and refusal of medical care has always been an issue in the detention center at Adams County,” said Grant-Gibson. “After the facilities were closed to public visitation, those problems increased.”

Grant-Gibson told the Blade she “worked with a number of families and received phone calls from a number of detainees, and I was told again and again that detainees were being refused the opportunity to visit the infirmary.”

“When they did visit the infirmary, they were given virtually no treatment for the issues they were presenting with,” said Grant-Gibson.

ICE in its press release that announced Sánchez’s death said fatalities among its detainees, “statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population.” ICE also noted it spends more than $315 million a year “on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to detainees.”

“ICE’s Health Service Corps (IHSC) ensures the provision of necessary medical care services as required by ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards and based on the medical needs of the detainee,” notes the ICE press release. “Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay. All ICE detainees receive medical, dental, and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care.”

An ICE spokesperson on Wednesday pointed the Blade to its Performance-Based Detention Standards from 2011, which includes policies for the treatment of detainees with HIV/AIDS.

A detainee “may request HIV testing at any time during detention” and ICE detention centers “shall develop a written plan to ensure the highest degree of confidentiality regarding HIV status and medical condition.” The policy also states that “staff training must emphasize the need for confidentiality, and procedures must be in place to limit access to health records to only authorized individuals and only when necessary.”

“The accurate diagnosis and medical management of HIV infection among detainees shall be promoted,” reads the policy. “An HIV diagnosis may be made only by a licensed health care provider, based on a medical history, current clinical evaluation of signs and symptoms and laboratory studies.”

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Rachel Levine on becoming four-star admiral: ‘It comes from my desire to serve’

Trans official sworn-in to U.S. Public Health Service

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For Rachel Levine, the appointment to her new role as a four-star admiral complementing her existing duties as assistant secretary for health is another way for the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed presidential appointee to serve.

“I think that this just really comes from my desire to serve in all capacities,” Levine said in an interview Tuesday with the Washington Blade. “To serve the first day in my field of academic medicine and pediatrics, but then in Pennsylvania and now in the federal government, and it furthers my ability to do that.”

Levine, 63, also recognized the importance of the appointment as a transgender person within the U.S. Public Health Service, for which she was ceremonially sworn in on Tuesday

“I think for the LGBTQ+ community, it is a further sign of progress and our president’s commitment to equity, to inclusion and diversity,” Levine said. “So I think that it is a very important milestone, and I’m pleased to serve.”

As part of her duties, Levine will lead an estimated 6,000 public health service officers serving vulnerable populations, including deployments inside and outside the country for communities beleaguered with the coronavirus, according to the Department of Health & Human Services. The role involves working closely with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy, whom Levine called her “friend and colleague.”

The U.S. Public Health Service, Levine said, has deployed “many, many times,” including its greatest number ever of deployments to vulnerable populations during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the places the service has deployed, Levine said, was in her home state of Pennsylvania, where she recently served as secretary of health.

Not only is Levine the first openly transgender person to serve in the uniformed health service as a four-star general, but she’s also the first woman to serve in that capacity.

“We have 6,000 dedicated committed public servants really all focused on our nation’s health, and they serve in details to the CDC and the FDA and the NIH, but also clinically with the Indian Health Service, and the federal prison system,” Levine said. “They’re also detailed and deployed throughout the country, and they deployed like never before for COVID-19 as well as the border, as well as dealing with floods and hurricanes and tornadoes.”

Although the Public Health Service is primarily focused on addressing public health disasters within the United States, Levine said it has a record of deployments overseas, including years ago when it was deployed to Africa under the threat of Ebola.

Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra had high praise for Levine in a statement upon news of taking on a leadership position in the service.

“This is a proud moment for us at HHS,” Becerra said. “Adm. Levine — a highly accomplished pediatrician who helps drive our agency’s agenda to boost health access and equity and to strengthen behavioral health — is a cherished and critical partner in our work to build a healthier America.”

Levine, however, was careful to draw a distinction between her appointment within the Public Health Service and being a service member within the U.S. armed forces.

“It is not a military branch, it’s not the armed forces: It’s a uniformed force, so it’s different,” Levine said. “For example, the Army, the Navy, our military, there are two other uniformed branches, and that is ours, the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and NOAA.”

The new role, Levine said, would complement her duties as assistant secretary for health. Although not only secretaries of health have been commissioned to take the uniform, Levine said she wanted to undertake that as part of her role in the Biden administration.

The two appointments were not simultaneous, Levine said, because of a general process she undertook, which was completed just this week.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Levine. During her Senate confirmation process, when she was hounded by anti-transgender attacks in conservative media and rude, invasive questioning by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on her gender identity.

Levine, however, said she hasn’t encountered any hostility regarding her new role (as of now) and shrugged off any potential attacks in the future and said the move is about her career “to serve and to help people.”

“I’ve continued that for our nation as the assistant secretary for health and this is just a further demonstration of my commitment to service,” Levine said. “I don’t know what others will say, but that’s the genesis of my wanting to serve in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and to place on the uniform.”

Levine’s new appointment comes shortly after a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sent her a letter dated Sept. 30 calling on her and Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, to issue new guidance for hospital or residential care on mental health needs of transgender people.

Asked about the letter, Levine said mental health issues are under the authority of Delphin-Rittmon and the two “will work together and we will respond.”

Specifically, the senators in the letter call on the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, or BHCC, and experts in the field of adolescent trans care to offer guidance on best practices for inpatient mental health care among these youth.

Asked what the response will look like, Levine said, “We’re going to work on that.”

“We will be looking at what they’re asking for and the requirements, and we’ll talk with them and the stakeholders and we’ll look to issue appropriate guidance,” Levine said.

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