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HIV activists hail Fauci amid coronavirus crisis — but it wasn’t always that way

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ACT UP protest at the National Institutes of Health on April 21, 1990. (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading voice of medical authority as the world confronts the coronavirus, is no stranger to viral epidemics — nor protesters who once displayed him in effigy in frustration amid new infections and rising death tolls.

At the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the early 1990s, Fauci was at the front lines as director of the National Institutes of Allergy & Infectious Diseases, a role he began in 1984 and continues to this day. During that time, Fauci’s research contributed to the understanding of HIV’s destruction of the immune system and therapy that has significantly contained the disease in more recent years.

Now, as a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Fauci has provided sage advice, calmed fears, and — at times — acted as voice of accountability for the Trump administration amid efforts to contain COVID-19.

As the coronavirus epidemic began to unfold, Fauci himself compared the situation to the early days of the HIV epidemic — as well as other diseases — because “there’s still a lot that’s unknown.“

“It’s not that different than the very early years of the HIV epidemic, of the anthrax attacks, of the concern about the pre-pandemic bird flu,” Fauci said March 9 on CNN’s “New Day.” “Everything has a little bit of a different twist to it. It’s not exactly the same, but there’s always that uncertainty that gets people very anxious.”

Under Fauci’s leadership, NIH in 1987 developed AZT, or zidovudine, the first antiretroviral approved for the treatment of HIV, although the epidemic continued. After more research, when combinations of drugs were seen to be effective against HIV, NIH cleared the way for more effective therapy in 1996.

Carl Schmid, executive director of the HIV & Hepatitis Policy Institute, was among the advocates fighting HIV/AIDS who hailed Fauci’s work both then and now.

“No one does a better job at explaining and conquering infectious diseases, whether it is HIV/AIDS or coronavirus, than Tony Fauci,” Schmid said. “Not only is he one of the world’s top infectious disease doctors but he knows how to articulate complicated issues and on top of it, understands how to address them utilizing an all parts of society approach. He has been there since the earliest days of the AIDS crisis and can take all of what he has learned and done over the years, including working with presidents of both parties, to now deal with the coronavirus.”

But it wasn’t always a happy relationship with HIV/AIDS activists. As the HIV/AIDS epidemic raged and continued to the claim the lives of thousands of gay men, Fauci was the target of activists who accused him of not moving quickly with new medicines to fight the disease.

ACT UP, the grassroots network that held “die-in” protests to draw attention to mass fatalities from HIV/AIDS amid silence from the U.S. government, held a massive demonstration at the National Institutes of Health on April 21, 1990, as reported at the time by the Washington Blade and published in a subsequent article now available in the archives.

According to the article, written by veteran Blade reporter Lou Chibbaro, Jr., more than 1,000 demonstrators marched through the sprawling grounds of the NIH “using placards, costumes, bull horns and red-colored tape to draw attention to their demand for faster government action on AIDS research programs.”

One photo taken at the event by the Blade — but never published until now — shows three protesters dressed in black robes and skull masks in the style of the Grim Reaper.

The three hold a large coffin-like box with letters reading, “Fauci: Resign Now — Release Compound: O.” Another holds a sign reading, “120,000 AIDS Deaths, Courtesy NIH.” Another holds up a pole within a bloody head mask on top and a sign underneath designating the effigy as “Fauci.”

“Scores of drugs and alternative treatments languish untested while more than 200 new cases of AIDS are diagnosed each day,” stated ACT UP in papers distributed at the demonstration.

Police reportedly arrested 61 protesters during the four-hour demonstration and charged them with trespassing, including five members of ACT UP/D.C.

Following the demonstration, Fauci reportedly said he was sympathetic to ACT UP’s cause, but believes its allegations were untrue. Further, Fauci was quoted as saying NIH implemented recent changes to direct more resources to fight infections diseases like HIV/AIDS.

ACT UP protest at the National Institutes of Health on April 21, 1990. (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

A chief critic of Fauci was Larry Kramer, a longtime HIV/AIDS activist who helped found ACT UP in the late 1980s and remains hostile to this day. As recently as 2015, Kramer in an op-ed for The Advocate faulted Fauci for failing to live up to his promise to find a cure for HIV infection. (Kramer didn’t respond to a Blade email this week to comment on Fauci’s approach to the coronavirus.)

Kramer’s harsh words may be persiflage. Fauci was quoted in a 2012 article in the New Yorker about Larry Kramer as saying he’s come to regard the activist as a friend, crediting his work with instituting a major change in medicine against infectious diseases.

But to say the relationship between HIV/AIDS activists and Fauci was entirely frosty would be inaccurate. On Dec. 22, 1990, also as reported by the Blade, when President George H.W. Bush met with gay men with AIDS at NIH, Fauci was among those who took part in the discussion.

Also at the meeting was first lady Barbara Bush and George Bush, Jr., otherwise known as future President George W. Bush. It was the first time “a sitting U.S. president formally met with open gays,” the Blade reported at the time

The presidential party, Fauci reportedly said, listened to the gay men in attendance and sat in on a support sessions for people undertaking NIH’s experimental AIDS drug trials. Some of the men had HIV, some had developed AIDS, the Blade reported.

The elder Bush shook hands with each of the men and presented them with a commemorative presidential tie pin, according to the Blade.

“He was really touched,” Fauci was quoted as saying. “This was not just a formality. He was really interested.”

The meeting, Fauci reportedly said, was open to the White House press corps and news photographers took photos of the elder Bush shaking hands with the men.

“But much to his disappointment, Fauci said, almost all the photos appearing in the nation’s daily newspapers the next day were of a different part of the NIH visit — when the president cradled babies with AIDS in the NIH pediatric ward,” the Blade reported.

Asia Russell, executive director of the New York-based group HealthGAP, was among the HIV/AIDS activists at the time and told the Blade this week that work was responsible for pushing Fauci into supporting the community.

“Dr. Fauci has been the target of AIDS activists’ campaigns and protests in the past, and those protests delivered results — they helped him see how access to the benefits of science is not neutral, it’s driven, or hindered, by politics, and that remains true today,” Russell said.

Thirty years after the massive protest at NIH, the nature of the virus inspiring fear among the public and responsible for the deaths of thousands worldwide has changed, but Fauci’s work has not.

Russell said Fauci in his role within the White House Coronavirus Task Force has brought to the fore shortcomings in the Trump administration’s approach to COVID-19, which she said “has been a disgrace.”

“It’s an embarrassment that Dr. Fauci, a trusted voice in public health, has to testify before Congress and make the rounds on the Sunday shows to contradict the lies the president is telling,” Russell said.

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L.A. County on track to bring back mandatory indoor masking

If LA county stays in CDC designated High Community Level for 2 consecutive weeks officials would implement a universal indoor masking

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Photo Credit: County of Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health indicated that if the upward trend in coronavirus numbers continues, due to the increased circulation of the more infectious BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants coupled with increased community spread, officials may order a return to indoor masks.

On Friday, Public Health said that while the county currently remains at the CDC designated COVID-19 Medium Community Level. There are increasing concerns about the impact of new Omicron sub-variants on transmission and hospitalizations that could result in the County moving into the High Community Level designation sometime later this summer.

Barbara Ferrer, Director of LA County Public Health expressed concern and cautioned Angelenos as the region prepares for the July 4th holiday weekend.

“Since July 4 is right around the corner and many of us are looking forward to celebrating Independence Day with family and friends, it is important to remember that many of our loved ones may be older adults, or have serious underlying health conditions, or not yet been vaccinated and boosted,” Ferrer said.

“Given the rising number of COVID cases and hospitalizations, and the increased circulation of the more infectious BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, it is extra important to take steps that reduce the risk of transmission especially over the long holiday weekend; this helps us protect ourselves, our families, and our community,” She continued adding, “With a little planning, you can have a great time celebrating while keeping each other safe. Please be sure to remind friends and family to stay home and skip the celebration if they feel sick or have tested positive.  It is also a great idea for everyone to test themselves before getting together, ideally on the day of the gathering. It is always best to celebrate outdoors, and if people come indoors for part of the gathering, wearing a mask is advisable, particularly if there are individuals at high risk of severe illness should they become infected.”

LA County Public Health pointed out in a statement that six of the seven Early Alert metrics Public Health are tracking continue to convey cause for Medium or High Concern. Moreover, in the past week, four Early Alert Signals moved upward in the level of concern: The case rate in the lowest income areas and the number of new outbreaks at Skilled Nursing Facilities per week, both moved up to High Concern.

The number of new outbreaks in settings for People Experiencing Homelessness is now at Medium Concern. And the number of worksite clusters increased, moving from Medium to High Concern for the first time since Public Health started tracking this metric in early March.

There was also an uptick in the percentage of Emergency Department Visits. The only measure indicating Low Concern is the number of sewer systems with a two-fold increase in viral load.

The first of two hospital metrics in the CDC Community Levels Framework is the seven-day total of new hospital admissions per 100,000, which rose this past week to 8.1 admissions per 100,000 people. This is a 56% increase compared to one month ago. The second hospital metric, the seven-day average for the proportion of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients, also increased this past week to 4.2%.

If the county moves into the CDC designated High Community Level and remains there for two consecutive weeks, the county would implement a universal indoor masking requirement for everyone age 2 and older in LA County as a safety measure aligned with the CDC framework. The safety measure would remain in effect until the county returned to the CDC Medium Community Level designation, or lower, for two consecutive weeks. 

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CDC: 85% of gay & lesbian adults in U.S. are vaccinated against COVID

Data on COVID-19 vaccination among LGBTQ persons limited because of the lack of routine SOGI data collection at the national & state levels

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Photo Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/GSA

ATLANTA – A new study report released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC), found that found 85.4% of gay and lesbian Americans above age 18 had received at least one vaccine dose as of October 2021.

The study, conducted from August 29 until October 30, 2021, also found that by comparison, only 76.3% of heterosexuals reported receiving at least an initial dose by the same date.

The report noted that Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) populations have higher prevalence of health conditions associated with severe COVID-19 illness compared with non-LGBT populations.

The potential for low vaccine confidence and coverage among LGBT populations is of concern because these persons historically experience challenges accessing, trusting, and receiving health care services

Data on COVID-19 vaccination among LGBT persons are limited, in part because of the lack of routine data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity at the national and state levels.

In March of 2021, the Blade reported the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has revealed deep-seated inequities in health care for communities of color and amplifies social and economic factors that have contributed to those communities being hit hardest, and Mega-vaccination centers set up by California health officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been addressing and tracking the issue- the LGBTQ communities are still not being tracked.

This lack of data collection has frustrated and angered California State Senator Scott Wiener who authored a bill last year that passed through the legislature and signed by Governor Gavin Newsom last Fall that mandates gathering sexual orientation and gender identity data related to the COVID testing in California.

“We’re one year into the pandemic, and LGBTQ people continue to be erased in our public health response to COVID-19 — similar to our invisibility throughout history. No government is successfully tracking COVID-19 cases in the LGBTQ community, despite a law I wrote mandating that California do so,” Weiner told the Blade. “And, we now know that LGBTQ people are more vulnerable to COVID-19. We’ve also just learned that vaccination demographic data doesn’t include LGBTQ data. It simply shocking that in 2021, progressive health agencies continue to forget about our community,” he added.

The CDC also noted that gay and lesbian adults were more likely to be concerned about COVID-19 and to believe in the safety and efficacy of vaccines.

“We know that the prevalence of certain health conditions associated with severe COVID-19 illness, such as cancer, smoking, and obesity, are higher in LGBT populations, and access to health care continues to be an issue for some people in the LGBT community,” Dr. A.D. McNaghten, a member of the CDC’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Team and corresponding author of the study, told ABC News. “We wanted to see if vaccination coverage among LGBT persons was the same as non-LGBT persons.”

The CDC data recorded that bisexual and transgender adults had similar vaccination rates to heterosexual adults with 72.6% of bisexual adults fully vaccinated by the end of October, as were 71.4% of transgender adults. The numbers however for Black and Hispanic lesbian women had lower rates of vaccination at 57.9% and 72.6%, respectively, compared to Black and Hispanic heterosexual women at 75.6% and 80.5%, respectively.

Higher percentages of gay or lesbian adults and bisexual adults reported that they thought COVID-19 vaccine was very or somewhat important to protect oneself (90.8% and 86.8%, respectively) compared with heterosexual adults (80.4%), and higher percentages of adults who identified as transgender or nonbinary reported they thought COVID-19 vaccine was very or somewhat important to protect oneself (83.2%) compared with those who did not identify as transgender or nonbinary (80.7%).

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White House orders distribution of 400 million free N95 masks

Dr. Tom Inglesby, the administration’s Covid testing coordinator; “We know that these masks provide better protection than cloth masks”

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President Joe Biden (Blade file photo/screenshot)

WASHINGTON – As the latest surge of the highly contagious and easily transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus continues to cause a rise in hospitalizations, especially among unvaccinated adults and children, the White House announced Wednesday it is making 400 million N95 masks available for free at thousands of locations across the nation.

The plan an admkistartion official said, is to start shipping the nonsurgical masks to pharmacies and community health centers to distribute this week, which will come from the Strategic National Stockpile.

In an interview with NBC News, Dr. Tom Inglesby, the administration’s Covid testing coordinator, said, “We know that these masks provide better protection than cloth masks.”

The N95 masks will be made available to everybody, and recipients will not be prioritized based on vulnerability to Covid, income or other criteria. Inglesby said the administration was “confident that people who want to access them will be able to access them,” but it was not immediately clear how many masks a person could receive at one time.

On January 13, President Joe Biden had announced a plan to have the government distribute 1 billion rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests free to Americans, along with the N95 masks, as the administration works to fight the spiraling upward spike in coronavirus cases.

The White House website to order free at-home Covid tests went live Tuesday. The website says: “Every home in the U.S. is eligible to order 4 free at-home COVID-19 tests. The tests are completely free. Orders will usually ship in 7-12 days.”

A White House official said Wednesday that the distribution of 400 million masks would be the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history.

Inglesby told NBC News that the administration was “absolutely preparing for the possibility of additional variants in the future” and that people could expect the government to make N95 masks “more and more available.”

Biden announces free masks, tests to fight omicron:

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