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Becerra gets defensive over Biden administration’s approach to monkeypox

HHS sec’y vaguely blames localities and ‘communities at risk’

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Xavier Becerra, gay news, Washington Blade
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra got defensive Thursday in response to the Biden administration's approach to monkeypox.

The Biden administration’s top health official got defensive on Thursday in response to questions about its response to monkeypox, suggesting localities and “communities at risk” weren’t doing enough on prevention efforts and asserting the federal government has “done our homework” in addressing the outbreak.

Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra made the comments during a conference call with reporters intended to highlight the federal procurement of an additional 786,000 JYNNEOS vaccines from Bavarian Nordic, which are designed to protect against smallpox and monkeypox, amid concerns over a lack of supply causing localities to restrict access to the shots.

When reporters started asking questions about whether the U.S. government could eliminate monkeypox, or simply get ahead of it and whether the disease would become endemic in the United States, Becerra became defensive and downplayed concerns about vaccine availability.

“I almost want to turn that question back at you…and ask you how many vaccines do you think we need at this stage?” Becerra said. “Now there are 330 million Americans. We could try to vaccinate all 330 million but as we’ve seen with COVID, which is far deadlier. There’s not a person who’s died from monkeypox. We’ve lost over a million people from COVID. We still haven’t seen every American get vaccinated with a vaccine that has proven itself to be effective to keep people alive.”

Although challenges have persisted in getting Americans to take now widely available COVID vaccines, the problem with the monkeypox vaccine is supply not meeting demand. The D.C. government announced it would temporarily discontinue a two-shot strategy and offer one shot, which is below the recommended federal guidelines, unless a patient is considered high risk. D.C. Health officials have said the first dose is effective for six months and they anticipate having enough vaccine within that time frame to administer the second doses. Critics have said the Biden administration has not sufficiently ramped up efforts to make vaccines widely available for a disease that has been around since the 1950s.

Meanwhile, the number of cases of monkeypox in the United States, which have occurred almost entirely among men who have sex with men, has reached 3,591. The number of cases is now the highest anywhere in the world.

“So on monkeypox, there are so far less than 5,000 cases reported,” Becerra continued. “So we’ve already made available to jurisdictions throughout the country more than 330,000 vaccines and today we’re announcing that another 786,000 are available. How many more vaccines would you say we need today?”

That’s when Becerra appeared to shift blame over criticism to the government response to localities and “communities at risk,” suggesting they weren’t doing enough to prevent monkeypox. Although Becerra didn’t elaborate exactly on what he meant by prevention for monkeypox, nor “communities at risk,” he compared such efforts to social distancing and masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

“If the response is we’re not going to expect any type of prevention work by the communities at risk, by the state and local officials, then chances are we’re going to have to go to the really high numbers of vaccines,” Becerra said. “But if everyone does their work, and remember containing the virus requires a lot of preventative work — as you know we did masks, that’s why we did social distancing with COVID — we know what we need to do pretty well on monkeypox.”

Becerra went on to promote the federal government’s efforts on monkeypox as rising to the moment, continuing to say state and local officials were responsible for not getting vaccines to populations in need.

“And so to the question: Can we not only stay ahead of this virus, but end this outbreak? Absolutely,” Becerra said. “And we believe that we have done everything we can at the federal level to work with our state and local partners and communities affected to make sure we can stay ahead of this and end this outbreak, but everybody’s got to take the oar and row. Everybody’s got to do their part. We don’t control, as you can see from our lack of data that we’ve gotten from jurisdictions, what they’re doing with their vaccines. We don’t have the authority to tell them what to do. We need them to work with us. And so, I would say that if you’re asking students in the classroom who did their homework, I will raise my hand and say that at HHS, we’ve done our homework.”

Lindsay Dawson, associate director of HIV Policy and director of LGBTQ Health Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told the Washington Blade in response to Becerra’s comments the secretary has a point about the role of localities, but said current problems are at least partly attributed to “barriers at the federal level.”

“Responding to infectious disease outbreaks, including monkeypox, often requires a joint federal and state or local response,” Dawson said. “It is certainly true that local governments have a significant role to play in curbing the current outbreak and that the different decisions they make will likely foreshadow their success to some degree. That said, many of the primary tools to address the monkeypox outbreak, particularly vaccination and treatment, remain limited to date due, at least in part, to barriers at the federal level. Limited access to these tools could challenge local communities in mounting a comprehensive response in the immediate term.”

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National

Survey shows 72% of Utah residents back same-sex marriage

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah said he’s not surprised to see that a majority of Utahns now support marriage equality

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The results of a poll run by the Hinckley Institute of Politics and the Desert News found 72% of Utah’s residents agree that marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized by law as valid, with the same rights as cis-gender marriages.

“For a state that less than 20 years ago passed laws and a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, there has been a seismic shift in opinion,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

The Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics survey also found that 23% of those surveyed disagreed, while 5% expressed that they don’t know.

The poll shows Utahns are aligned with the nation as a whole on the issue. A Gallup poll in May found 71% of Americans say they support legal same-sex marriage, a new high.

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, told the Desert News that he’s not surprised to see that a majority of Utahns now support marriage equality.

“Utah is a pro-family state, and we recognize that families come in all shapes and sizes. When we see loving, committed couples joining in matrimony, our natural impulse is to support and encourage that love. This gives me great hope for the future,” he said.

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Mississippi

Art used to spotlight people of color lost to AIDS in the South

National AIDS Memorial, Southern AIDS Coalition created Change the Pattern exhibit

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The National AIDS Memorial and Southern AIDS Coalition have announced a new initiative to raise awareness about the impact of HIV/AIDS among communities of color in the South. (Photo courtesy of the National AIDS Memorial)

The National AIDS Memorial has joined forces with the Southern AIDS Coalition to stage a series of art exhibitions and educational forums to honor Black and Brown people in the South who have been lost to HIV/AIDS.

The initiative, titled Change the Pattern, began in Jackson, Miss., on Wednesday with curated quilt exhibitions, displays, educational forums, advocacy, storytelling and quilt-making, according to a press release from the National AIDS Memorial. A $2.4 million grant from the biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, Inc., funded Change the Pattern.

More than 500 hand-stitched quilt panels from the area were featured in what the National AIDS Memorial says is “the largest display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt ever” in Mississippi.

“By creating an empowering message and safe spaces for conversation, we can uplift, inspire and make progress toward ending the HIV epidemic, challenge cultural stigmas and continue the legacy of advocacy that the quilt represents,” said National AIDS Memorial CEO John Cunningham in the release. 

Change the Pattern was announced in honor of Southern HIV/AIDS Awareness Day during the Southern AIDS Coalition’s annual Saving Ourselves Symposium that took place in August. 

The conference, which was heavily attended by LGBTQ activists from the South, featured 100 quilt panels, and attendees participated in quilt-making workshops to make new quilt panels representing their loved ones.

Interested LGBTQ advocacy organizations in the South were invited to apply for funding to support local quilt-making workshops in their communities so as to ensure that the legacies of Black and Brown people are captured through newly-sewn panels on the quilt through the Memorial’s Call My Name program, according to the National AIDS Memorial press release. 

The application process opened on Sept. 15 with up to 35 eligible organizations receiving as much as $5,000 to support hosting local workshops. 

The first major Change the Pattern Quilt was founded 35 years ago as a visual representation of the need to end stigma and provide equitable resources to communities most impacted by HIV/AIDS, according to Southern AIDS Coalition Executive Director Dafina Ward.

“Change the Pattern is a call to action and change in the South,” said Ward. “Quilt-making has such a deep cultural connection in the Black community and in the South. The sharing and telling of these powerful stories through the quilt, coupled with advocacy and open dialogue, can help end HIV-related stigma and bring the stories of those we’ve lost to light.”

As the Change the Pattern initiative occurs, conversations about how to handle health epidemics within LGBTQ communities of color have become national topics, especially with the prevalence of monkeypox cases amongst Black gay men.

Despite earlier panic about the disease, the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention in a report released on Wednesday said that individuals who were vaccinated against the disease were less likely to be affected over the summer compared to those who weren’t. 

The effectiveness and duration of immunity after a single dose, however, is not known, and few individuals in the current outbreak have completed the recommended two-dose series, according to the report. 

The most recent CDC data reports that 25,509 monkeypox cases have thus far been confirmed in the U.S. Only one death has been reported.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Doctor, transgender spouse indicted for passing information to Russia

Jamie Lee Henry first active-duty Army officer to come out as trans

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Jamie Lee Henry and their spouse Anna Gabrielian (Photos from social media)

A federal grand jury on Wednesday handed down an indictment of a Johns Hopkins anesthesiologist and her spouse, a doctor and major in the U.S. Army, with conspiracy and for the disclosure of individually identifiable health information related to their efforts to assist Russia in connection with the conflict in Ukraine.

The office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland in a press release stated Anna Gabrielian, 36, and her spouse, Jamie Lee Henry, 39, both of Rockville, Md., both of whom had secret clearances, were attempting to provide medical information about members of the military to the Russian government.

Gabrielian and Henry met with an individual they believed to be associated with the Russian government, but who was, in fact, an Federal Bureau of Investigation Undercover Agent.

Court documents indicate Gabrielian told the FBI agent posing as a Russian operative that she had previously reached out to the Russian Embassy by email and phone, offering Russia her and her spouses’ assistance.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Gabrielian told the FBI agent that, although Henry knew of Gabrielian’s interaction with the Russian Embassy, she never mentioned Henry’s name to the Russian Embassy.

In the narrative released by the U.S. Attorney’s office, on Aug. 17, 2022, Gabrielian met with the FBI at a hotel in Baltimore. During that meeting, Gabrielian told the FBI she was motivated by patriotism toward Russia to provide any assistance she could to Russia, even if it meant being fired or going to jail. 

She proposed potential cover stories for her meeting with the “Russians” and stressed the need for “plausible deniability” in the event she was confronted by American authorities. Gabrielian also told the FBI that, as a military officer, Henry was currently a more important source for Russia than she was, because they had more helpful information, including how the U.S. military establishes an army hospital in war conditions and information about previous training provided by the U.S. military to Ukrainian military personnel. 

Henry identifies as a “transgender military physician” on their Twitter account.

Henry received public attention in 2015 after becoming the first known active-duty Army officer to come out as trans.

Henry was at one point a member of SPARTA, the nation’s largest nonprofit representing actively-serving trans U.S. servicemembers. A spokesperson for SPARTA, in an emailed statement commenting on the announcement of the arrest and indictment of Henry and their spouse told the Washington Blade:

“Transgender people are as diverse as the societies to which they belong. One’s gender identity neither increases nor decreases a propensity towards alleged criminal activity.”

As stated in the indictment, Gabrielian is an anesthesiologist and worked at Medical Institution 1 in Baltimore.  

Henry, a major in the U.S. Army who held a secret-level security clearance, is Gabrielian’s spouse and a doctor. During the time of the alleged conspiracy, Henry worked as a staff internist stationed at Fort Bragg, the home of the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps, headquarters of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and the Womack Army Medical Center.

Gabrielian was scheduled to have initial appearance at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore before U.S. Magistrate Judge Brendan A. Hurson. Henry is also expected to have an initial appearance today, although a time has not yet been set.

Full statement from SPARTA:

“SPARTA, a non-profit advocacy organization representing transgender Service members in the United States, is saddened to learn of the arrest and indictment of Jamie Lee Henry, an officer in the U.S. Army and a medical doctor.

SPARTA has long advocated for the inclusion and total equity for transgender persons throughout the United States uniformed services. Today, thousands are serving honorably and authentically at home stations worldwide.

The actions alleged in the indictment do not reflect Henry’s identity as transgender. Their alleged actions are those of an individual and should not be taken as a representation of transgender people broadly or transgender members of the military specifically.

All people in the United States are entitled to the same rights, including due process and the presumption of innocence in this case. SPARTA does not condone any actions alleged in the indictment and expects the process to play out fairly and equitably as it would for anyone accused of a crime.”

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