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Same-sex couples win Walmart lawsuit

Prior to 2014, company refused spousal benefits to gay employees

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Walmart, gay news, Washington Blade
Walmart, gay news, Washington Blade

(Photo by Mike Mozart of JeepersMedia; courtesy Flickr)

BOSTON — A federal judge approved a $7.5 million settlement Monday in a class-action lawsuit against Walmart that found the retail giant violated gender-discrimination laws for years when it denied spousal benefits to same-sex couples, the Boston Globe reports.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a New Bedford woman by the advocacy group GLAD. The settlement was based in large part on U.S. Supreme Court rulings affirming the rights of same-sex couples to marry and, in an earlier ruling, their entitlement to federal spousal benefits, the Globe reports.

The lead plaintiff was Jacqueline Cote, who worked at Walmart for 15 years, though more than 300 plaintiffs joined the class-action lawsuit.

After attorneys fees are paid, the plaintiffs will split the roughly $5.5 million balance from the settlement, which U.S. District Judge William G. Young called fair and reasonable, according to the Boston Globe.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. had agreed in 2014 to provide spousal benefits for same-sex partners, and roughly 1,200 employees signed up for the benefits at the time. That decision came after the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages in states where it was allowed, the Globe reports.

But for three years before 2014, the company refused to pay spousal benefits to employees in same-sex marriages, according to the settlement.

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Health

Biden health officials defend approach to monkeypox as cases grow

Contradictory information emerges on vaccine administration

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Biden officials defended their approach to monkeypox as contradictory emerges among health experts.

Top health officials in the Biden administration defended their approach Thursday to the monkeypox outbreak as cases continue to grow and contradictory information has emerged on appropriate vaccine administration.

Members of the White House monkeypox task force, in response to a question from the Washington Blade in a conference call with reporters, held fast to their new guidance on the JYNNEOS vaccine, which seeks to change the method of administration of the shot in an effort to expand use of the existing supply by fivefold — despite objections and even threats to cancel the supply from the vaccine manufacturer, according to a report this week in the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, cases of monkeypox in the United States are escalating — and beginning to extend outside the community of men who have sex with men — as the total number of confirmed cases has reached 13,517.

Bob Fenton, the White House monkeypox response coordinator, was first to respond to the Blade’s question on how the public can trust guidance from health officials amid the contradictory information by asserting “anytime that you have change, you’re going to have the need to update and educate the community on those changes.”

“The day…the FDA made that decision, we need signaled a week that this was being undertaken by FDA there already were a number of jurisdictions that started the training in anticipation of that decision,” Fenton said. “And that day, there were jurisdictions actually delivering intradermal shots that day [to] fivefold the number of shots and did that to areas of high risk and did that to areas that made equity a factor in those decisions where they vaccinated. So it is happening; it is being successful.”

The context of the Biden administration’s change in guidance last week — which shifts from injection through the subcutaneous route (delivery of the vaccine under the fat layer underneath the skin) to the intradermal route (delivery of the vaccine into the layer of skin just underneath the top layer) — is an announcement from localities, including the D.C. government, shifting from two doses to one dose to make up for limited supply. Biden officials discouraged the one-dose approach, pointing to data suggesting it was not effective in protecting against monkeypox.

In essence, contradictory information is coming from health experts on monkeypox on all levels localities offer on the vaccine, which in turn is criticized by the federal government as ineffective in favor of different approaches, which is in turn criticized by the vaccine manufacturer as untested and inappropriate.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers of Disease Control & Prevention, responded to previously articulated concerns about the one-dose approach from localities by saying the Biden administration is working “really hand in glove in really fluid communication through this outbreak.”

“As I articulated we don’t yet know how well this vaccine will work in this outbreak,” Walensky said. “And as those data are evolving, as we had some resource constraints early on with the vaccine, we were working close with health departments so that they could maximize their coverage. We’ve met with them to talk about what data might be available for one dose, which are really limited [and] concerning in terms of how well it would work. And so when the strategy for intradermal dosing, which we anticipate will work just as well as subcutaneous dosing, we again met closely with the health departments…so that we could provide the data to them.”

Defense of changes in guidance in vaccine administration ended up overshadowing the announcements top officials were seeking to make, such as making an additional 1.8 million doses available for ordering starting Monday, a pilot program setting aside 50,000 doses for jurisdictions hosting large LGBTQ events, such as Black Pride in Atlanta and Southern Decadence in New Orleans; and making available next week 50,000 patient courses of TPOXX monkeypox treatment.

Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health & Human Services, said when asked by CNN about expanding the supply the administration may look elsewhere aside from the JYNNEOS vaccine manufacturer, Bavarian Nordic in Denmark, calling the company a “small manufacturer.”

“They currently have one active line and in the Copenhagen area that we’re relying on for 2.5 million doses to be filled and finished, but when we ordered that second 2.5 million to be built and finished, we made it a requirement that they work with a domestic U.S. contract manufacturing organization and we continue to partner with Bavarian Nordic as they solidify that relationship,” O’Connell said. “We are also helping them in other ways consider manufacturing capacity increases, potentially working with a larger pharmaceutical company.”

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Monkeypox

White House monkeypox response coordinator speaks exclusively with Blade

Dr. Demetre Daskalakis joined CDC in late 2020

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White House National Monkeypox Response Deputy Coordinator Demetre Daskalakis spoke exclusively with the Los Angeles Blade on Aug. 17, 2022. (Zoom screenshot)

White House National Monkeypox Response Deputy Coordinator Demetre Daskalakis joined the Los Angeles Blade for an exclusive Zoom interview Wednesday to discuss the latest challenges facing public health officials fighting the monkeypox virus (MPV) – from countering misinformation and educating the public to transitioning to intradermal vaccination dosing regimens. 

Daskalakis previously served as medical director for the New York-headquartered Mount Sinai Health System and then was made deputy commissioner for the Division of Disease Control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In late 2020, as the U.S. saw thousands of new covid fatalities each day, Daskalakis joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention.

A gay man who is a leading expert on LGBTQ health, during his tenure as a municipal health official in New York, Daskalakis’s work leading HIV and STD health programs was credited with helping to bring down the rate of new HIV infections among the city’s gay and bisexual men by 35 percent. 

So, while he notes that the U.S. has never before had a monkeypox outbreak like this one, before he stepped into this role with the White House, Daskalakis’s career had already included significant experience as both a clinical provider and public health official, including work fighting against anti-LGBTQ bias and stigma — which is crucial, given the overrepresentation of MPV cases among men who have sex with men. 

When it comes to messaging, Dr. Daskalakis said he and his team have taken the harder but more effective route, which is to center the focus on the means by which one becomes exposed to MPV “and then working really hard to get [messaging] out through the right channels” to the right groups based on their relative risk.  

This involves working with a variety of different partners, whether associations of medical providers or groups like the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program and community-based organizations that serve LGBTQ patients, Daskalakis said. The goal is to “toe the line between making sure you’re giving frank messaging to people while not creating stigma,” he added. 

As new data comes in, the communications strategy has shifted accordingly, he said. Such flexibility has become a cornerstone of the coordination of a federal response effort because, “we’ve been able to be way more clear in terms of specific risk factors that potentially increase or decrease an individual’s risk.” 

This has meant recommendations that gay and bisexual men “reduce your network of partners and also consider avoiding anonymous sexual partners if you can” are grounded in sound scientific data about the transmissibility of MPV, Daskalakis said. 

Another persistent challenge, of course, is the spread of misinformation and disinformation on social media. Last month, extreme right wing U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) asked on Twitter why children have contracted MPV if the virus is sexually transmitted. 

Groups like the Anti-Defamation League cited the move as an example of how “disingenuous questions about the disease’s origin and spread” to draw “an explicit connection between monkeypox and ‘children being molested by homosexuals’” — giving “oxygen and reach” to such dangerous lies about LGBTQ people. 

“Stigma is stigma, and homophobia is homophobia,” Daskalakis said, and while these problems are older, more intractable, and broader in scope than public health messaging around MPV, it is important to not “attach an infection to an identity.” 

“Stigmatizing a disease and creating stigma really creates rabbit holes that take people away from [figuring out] how to respond to an infectious disease — and the way that you respond to infectious diseases, the focus on community, the focus on knowledge, and the focus on data, which should act as a guidance” in getting messages to people, whether through online social platforms or other channels, he said.  

Daskalakis likened the approach to communication around HIV. “Focus on exposure,” he said, explaining that “anal sex is the most common way for HIV to be transmitted” and then making sure that message “goes to people who need to hear it.” That way, men who have sex with men can understand the best harm reduction strategies and “gay sex” or gay and bisexual men are not needlessly linked to the virus in ways that could worsen or intensify stigma. 

On Monday, the New York Times reported concerns aired by state and local health officials with the delivery of MPV vaccines, many of whom pointed fingers at their federal counterparts for problems like the arrival of shipments of doses that had been spoiled by high temperatures or improper handling. 

Daskalakis acknowledged the challenges while reaffirming the CDC and White House’s commitment to working collaboratively with state and local partners on these efforts. 

“The CDC has provided technical assistance, even down to a video that I think actually countries are using now to teach [the proper administration of] intradermal shots, which is really exciting,” he said. “But all of that is really designed to support the jurisdictions and I think we spend our time throughout this entire response really connected with jurisdictions.”

Daskalakis also praised the work being done by local and state health officials: “It’s really important to acknowledge that challenges are real, and [also] the creativity with which they’re sort of addressing those challenges on their jurisdictional level, to really get to the space everyone wants to be, which is more shots in arms … That’s sort of the theme of public health in general, especially in emergency response.” He added that that it’s been encouraging to see “how people are using the guidance of the federal government [including] the support we’re providing, to move things forward.” 

Moving forward, notwithstanding the many challenges that lie ahead, Daskalakis is optimistic about the future, partially by virtue of the fact that public health officials will have more data at their disposal. “I think we’re really working to accelerate — with studies that are going to happen — vaccine effectiveness, surveillance and safety that are happening to make sure that we have a sense of how these are working.”

Asked whether the federal coordination efforts remain focused on exploring possible ways to cut through red tape and paperwork, Daskalakis was again positive.

“In terms of bureaucracy, I think that that’s one of the important roles of our coordinating effort,” he said, working with partners at every level to see how the process of vaccinating and treating as many people as possible can be made less burdensome, with less paperwork, and more efficiently. 

A promising sign of this kind of breakthrough in the MPV response came last week when the FDA cleared the intradermal injection method of the vaccine JYNNEOS for emergency use authorization. 

This route of administration is not only safer, with a superior side effect profile compared to subcutaneous injection, but it also allows for more doses to be administered, Daskalakis said. 

In terms of rolling out the intradermal injections of MPV vaccine, Los Angeles is “killing it,” Daskalakis said. “It’s just like lightning speed. It’s inspiring.” It was not easy for such a big city to so quickly adapt to a new method of vaccination, he said, but health officials in the area got creative and “played it right.” 

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As monkeypox spreads, Delaware looks to expand vaccine access

Those exposed to virus prioritized in limited distribution

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(Image courtesy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The Delaware Division of Public Health on Aug. 4 confirmed the fourth, fifth, and sixth cases of monkeypox in the First State. Less than a month after the state announced its first case of the virus, the spread of monkeypox in Delaware mirrors trends across the country in what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has now declared a public health emergency.

Three Delawarean men ages 42, 24, and 19 were diagnosed with the most recent cases of the virus — none of whom reported close contact with an individual diagnosed with monkeypox, and all of whom are now self-isolating.

In an Aug. 4 press release, DPH noted that it intends to expand vaccine distribution, offering vaccines to high-risk groups with or without exposure to the virus.

Currently, the state only offers post-exposure prophylaxis, vaccines implemented after an individual comes into contact with a virus. Those who have had direct contact with individuals with confirmed cases of monkeypox are currently prioritized in the state’s limited post-exposure vaccination.

Groups that might be prioritized upon increased vaccine access include individuals who have had intimate contact with someone diagnosed with monkeypox within two weeks, individuals with multiple sexual partners within three weeks, individuals who have had intimate contact through dating apps, parties or clubs, and individuals who are HIV-positive or are currently receiving pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, according to the news release.

Some researchers suggest current monkeypox cases are underrepresented in public health statistics nationwide. Although monkeypox has been declared a national health emergency, Delaware has yet to make a similar declaration on the state level. DPH noted that health officials will continue to monitor public health conditions.

DPH encouraged Delaware residents and visitors to avoid close contact with those who have symptoms related to monkeypox, limiting their number of sexual partners, and cleaning their hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer regularly. DPH also urged those experiencing symptoms associated with monkeypox to contact their health care provider immediately, make a list of intimate contacts in the last three weeks and self-isolate until symptoms subside.

For more information, individuals can contact the DPH hotline for monkeypox-related questions and concerns on weekdays from 8:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 866-408-1899, or email  [email protected]. Information concerning monkeypox prevention programs and resources can be found at de.gov/monkeypox.

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