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Becerra gets defensive over Biden administration’s approach to monkeypox

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



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.”



White House, national groups respond to nonbinary Okla. teenager’s death

Nex Benedict died after reported assault



Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma, died on Feb. 8 after a fight at their high school. (Family photo)

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and national advocacy groups issued statements on Wednesday about the death of nonbinary Oklahoma teenager Nex Benedict after they were allegedly assaulted in a high school restroom.

Benedict died on Feb. 8. According to ABC News, officials investigating the incident said they will be interviewing students and staff “over the next few weeks” and plan to share findings with the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office.

The victim’s mother told the Independent that Benedict had suffered bullying over their gender since the start of the 2023 school year, shortly after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill to prohibit students from using public school restrooms that do not match the sex listed on their birth certificates.

“Every young person deserves to feel safe and supported at school,” Jean-Pierre said in a post on X. “Our hearts are with Nex Benedict’s family, their friends, and their entire school community in the wake of this horrific tragedy.”

Calling Benedict’s death a “gut-wrenching tragedy that exposes the chilling reality of anti-trans hatred,” Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson said. “We are reaching out to the DOJ, we are encouraging the community to speak out.”

Along with Robinson’s remarks, HRC’s Press Team included a link to the organization’s blog post about Benedict and a statement from Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the HRC Transgender Justice Initiative:

“Extremist anti-LGBTQ+ hate accounts, like online troll Chaya Raichik, the woman behind ‘Libs of TikTok’, who was recently appointed to Oklahoma’s library advisory board, are perpetuating a vile and hateful narrative that is permitting these types of public attacks,” she wrote.

State schools superintendent Ryan Walters, who last year called transgender youth using public restrooms “an assault on truth” and a danger to other kids, was responsible for naming Raichik to the library media panel.

“The assault on Nex is an inevitable result of the hateful rhetoric and discriminatory legislation targeting Oklahoma trans youth,” Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oklahoma wrote in a joint statement.

“We are deeply troubled by reports the school failed to respond appropriately to the altercation that preceded Nex’s death and demand a thorough, open investigation into the matter,” the groups wrote.

Their statement also notes the organizations’ lawsuit challenging Oklahoma Senate Bill 615, the bathroom bill signed by Stitt last year.

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U.S. Supreme Court

Alito renews criticism of the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality ruling

Obergefell decision allowed same-sex couples to marry around the country



U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito speaks at a conference in D.C. in December 2023 (YouTube screenshot)

Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Tuesday renewed his criticism of the landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that established the nationwide constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

His remarks came in a 5-page order that was written in connection with the High Court’s decision not to hear Missouri Department of Corrections v. Jean Finney — a dispute over whether a juror’s position that “homosexuality, according to the Bible, is a sin” can be the basis for striking him from an employment discrimination case that was brought by a lesbian.

The conflict, Alito argued, “exemplifies the danger” he foresaw in the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, which was decided by a 5-4 majority with Alito among the justices who dissented.

Specifically, Alito raised concern in his statement that “Americans who do not hide their adherence to traditional religious beliefs about homosexual conduct will be ‘labeled as bigots and treated as such’ by the government.'”

“The opinion of the court in [Obergefell] made it clear that the decision should not be used in that way,” the justice wrote, “but I am afraid that this admonition is not being heeded by our society.”

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Nonbinary Okla. high school student dies after fight

Nex Benedict passed away Feb. 8



Nex (Dagny) Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary high school student, died from injuries suffered in a physical altercation at Owasso High School on Feb. 7, 2024. (Family photo)

Located in Tulsa County on U.S. Highway 169 six miles north of Tulsa’s city limits, Owasso, which is home to 39,328 people, is grappling with conflict and accusations after Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old Owasso High School sophomore who was nonbinary, died after a physical fight in a restroom at the school.

However, according to school officials there was no notification or staff awareness of the fight until the young student had been taken to hospital and later died. The Owasso Police Department is now investigating the circumstances surrounding the student’s death. 

According to the local newspaper, the Owasso Reporter:

“On Wednesday, Feb. 7, around 3:30 p.m., police were called to Bailey Medical Center by the parent of a 16-year-old Owasso High School student who allegedly had a physical altercation at the campus earlier that day, according to the police report.”

It states that no initial report of the fight was made to police prior to their admission to Bailey, although information was taken by a school resource officer at the hospital.

On the evening of Feb. 8, police were made aware that the student was rushed back to the hospital where they were pronounced dead from a medical episode, the report states.

KJRH in neighboring Tulsa reported that a person knowledgeable of the events leading to the teen’s death, who claimed to be the mother of the victim’s best friend, told the station regarding the teen’s death:

“I think complications from brain trauma, head trauma, is what caused it,” she said.

The woman wouldn’t say the victim’s name but said Benedict was a sophomore. Bailey said the victim was outgoing and loyal once they got comfortable and was not afraid to be outspoken. The woman said three older girls were beating on the victim and her daughter in the girl’s bathroom.

“I know at one point, one of the girls was pretty much repeatedly beating [Benedict] head across the floor,” she said. That’s when [Benedict said] a teacher walked in and broke it up.

“[Benedict] couldn’t walk to the nurses’ station on [Benedict] own, and staff didn’t call the ambulance, which amazes me,” she said.

The woman told KJRH the victim’s grandmother, who [Benedict] primarily lived with, brought [Benedict] to the hospital after the fight. She said the victim was released that evening but was brought back the next day and died.

KJRH reached out multiple times along with other media outlets to Owasso Public Schools. A school district spokesperson responded saying there would be no comment “because this is an active police investigation.”

The Owasso Police Department also declined to comment except for noting investigators still don’t know if the fight was related to the teen’s death or if a separate medical issue was the cause. OPD said they’re waiting on the corner-medical examiner’s report before releasing more information.

Owasso Public Schools released this statement about the student’s death:

“The Owasso Police Department has notified district leaders of the death of an Owasso High School student. The student’s name and cause of death have not yet been made public. As this is an active police investigation, we will have no additional comment at this time. Further inquiries should be directed to the Owasso Police Department.”

“The district will have additional counselors at the school to provide support to students and staff beginning on Friday.”

On Feb. 15, after a service was held at Mowery Funeral Service Chapel, Benedict was buried at Ridgelawn Cemetery in Collinsville.

LGBTQ advocates and others are angered by the death, the misgendering in local media and the fact that the school district, which has been previously targeted by the far-right anti-LGBTQ extremist Libs of TikTok’s creator Chaya Raichik, seems unable to grapple with anti-LGBTQ bullying.

Raichik was named to sit on an Oklahoma committee reviewing school library content by far-right leaning State Superintendent of Schools Ryan Walters.

In 2022, Raichik targeted a now former Owasso 8th grade teacher for speaking out in support of LGBTQ students who lacked acceptance from their parents. That teacher, Tyler Wrynn, was labeled a “groomer” and a predator in social media posts.

According to LGBTQ advocacy groups, Raichik’s endless targeting only seems to encourage more violence against LGBTQ youth. 

Lance Preston, the CEO of the Indianapolis-based Rainbow Youth Project, which has been working to assist queer youth in the state, posted a video expressing his frustration and anger over this death and the other anti-LGBTQ violence.

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