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Biden nominates coordinator for global HIV/AIDS & adds team members

The coronavirus pandemic- a top priority for health officials is clouding potential assessment of the Ending the HIV Epidemic Initiative

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President Joe Biden IBlade file photo)

WASHINGTON – With the goal of beating HIV by 2025 domestically and a pledge for a renewed effort to fight the disease globally, President Joe Biden has put in place officials charged with making that happen.

The White House kicked off the week with the announcement that John Nkengasong, who has served as a top official on global health at the Centers for Disease Control, would be nominated as ambassador-at-large and coordinator of U.S. government activities to combat HIV/AIDS globally at the State Department.

Meanwhile, leadership within the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, otherwise known as PACHA, was restructured in August as the Biden administration has continued the Ending the HIV Epidemic Plan health officials started in the previous administration.

Carl Schmid, who served as co-chair of PACHA during the Trump years, no longer holds that position, and has been replaced by Marlene McNeese, a woman of color and deputy assistant director of the Houston Health Department. John Wiesman, former secretary of health for Washington State, will continue to serve as co-chair.

McNeese is among eight new members of PACHA. The others are:

  • Guillermo Chacón, president of the Latino Commission on AIDS;
  • Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the Transgender Justice Initiative at the Human Rights Campaign;
  • Raniyah Copeland, CEO of the Black AIDS Institute;
  • Leo Moore, medical director for clinic services at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health;
  • Kayla Quimbley, national youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day ambassador for Advocates for Youth;
  • Adrian Shanker, founder and executive director of Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center; and
  • Darrell Wheeler, senior vice president for academic affairs at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y.

The changes underscore the new approach to HIV/AIDS Biden promised during his presidential campaign. Among them is beating HIV/AIDS domestically by 2025, which is five years earlier than the plan under the Ending the HIV Epidemic initiative that began in the Trump administration. Whether or not Biden will meet that ambitious goal remains to be seen.

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS, hailed the nomination of Nkengasong to the global AIDS position upon news of the announcement.

“John Nkengasong’s vast experience in combatting HIV, combined with his position as Africa’s leading disease expert fighting Ebola, COVID-19 and more, position him extremely well to guide the United States’ global contribution towards ending the AIDS pandemic,” Byanyima said. “Today, the HIV and COVID-19 pandemics are colliding in communities throughout the world, and the threat of a resurgent AIDS pandemic is very real. We need the kind of bold thinking and commitment he has brought throughout his career.”

While the global AIDS appointment will have a role in international programs, such as PEPFAR and U.S. participation in the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria, the PACHA appointments will focus on both domestic and global perspectives.

Schmid, executive director of the HIV+Hepatitis Policy Institute, said despite the change in leadership he will maintain his role as head of the subcommittee on the Ending the HIV Epidemic initiative.

“It’s good,” Schmid said.”They appointed a lot of African-American community, Latino community [members] and they said they’ll rotate co-chairs,” Schmid said. “I think it’s good that they put on new blood, and new leadership.”

Schmid has been a vocal skeptic about Biden being able to meet his goal to beat HIV by 2025 — as opposed to the 2030 target set by the previous administration — but said the realignment in PACHA was “not at all” related to that.

“I think I was replaced because the Biden administration wanted the leadership of PACHA to be more representative of the current epidemic in the United States,” Schmid said.

Schmid, however, refused to back down from his prediction that Biden won’t be able to make his 2025 goal a reality.

“I think you will find wide agreement within the HIV community that it is not feasible to end HIV by 2025,” Schmid said. “There is just too much work to do and change to happen.”

The new appointments will add to the cadre of Biden appointees engaged on HIV/AIDS, including Harold Phillips, who was appointed in June to lead the White House Office of National AIDS Policy after that position remained vacant for the entirety of the Trump administration.

‘Too early’ to gauge effort to beat HIV domestically

The focus of the appointees on the domestic front will be the Ending the HIV Epidemic initiative, a plan heavily focused on PrEP as a means of preventing HIV in an effort to reduce new incidents of infections by 90 percent within 10 years. The program was launched in 2019.

Although Congress has appropriated money for the initiative, and just last week, the Department of Health & Human Services distributed $48 million to HRSA centers as part of the effort, experts say not enough data is available to tell to whether or not the program has been effective.

Jennifer Kates, senior vice president and director of global health & HIV policy at Kaiser Family Foundation, said data isn’t yet available on whether new incidents of HIV are reduced because the latest data is from fiscal year 2019.

“From the perspective of the timeline of the goals of the initiative, it’s too early, we wouldn’t know that anyway, but just even given the context and what’s happened since it started, I just don’t know how you’d evaluate it,” Kates said. “What I do believe is important though, is the idea of dedicated new funding. It was the first new funding provided to HIV for years that’s been channeled to local jurisdictions [and] has the potential to catalyze new and better responses, but we don’t know yet that’s happened.”

The coronavirus pandemic, which has been the top priority for health officials around the world, is also obfuscating any potential assessment of the Ending the HIV Epidemic Initiative.

Daniel Bruner, senior director of policy at the D.C.-based Whitman-Walker Institute, said the coronavirus has “dramatically impacted medical care,” including HIV/AIDS efforts.

“The pandemic has also necessitated substantial shifts in federal, state, and local resources into COVID prevention, diagnosis and treatment,” Bruner said. “Therefore, it is premature to draw any conclusions about the EHE initiative’s effectiveness. The federal government has emphasized its continuing commitment to the EHE initiative, and Whitman-Walker also remains committed to that work.”

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The White House

The White House celebrates “A night when hope & history rhyme”

“On his final tour in Washington, Jill and I invited Elton to the White House to thank him on behalf of the American people”

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President Biden awards the National Humanities Medal to Elton John for his work on combating HIV/AIDS (Screenshot/C-SPAN)

WASHINGTON – After a performance from a repertoire of the best known hits from his songbook in a special musical concert at the White House Friday evening, Sir Elton John was called to the podium where, accompanied by the First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, President Joe Biden surprised the iconic British singer-songwriter with an award.

The president presented John with the National Humanities Medal for his advocacy work in recognition of LGBTQ+ rights and tireless activism against the global HIV/AIDS crisis disease through his contributions in music and the arts.

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened its citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects.

A stunned John was moved to tears. After the president had the citation read by a military aide and hung the medal around the singer’s neck, Biden told the audience gathered, “I think we surprised him” to which they cheered and applauded.

The medal’s citation read in part that it was honoring John “for moving our souls with his powerful voice and one of the defining song books of all time. An enduring icon and advocate with absolute courage, who found purpose to challenge convention, shatter stigma and advance the simple truth — that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Visibly moved, the iconic musician and performer said: “I just said to the First Lady, I’m never flabbergasted- but I’m flabbergasted and humbled and honoured by this incredible award from the United States of America. I will treasure this so much- I will make me double my efforts to make sure this disease goes away. Your kindness- America’s kindness to me as a musician is second to none, but in the war against AIDS and HIV it’s even bigger and I can’t thank you enough…. I’m really emotional about this- thank you.”

Texas Trans-teen activist Landon Richie (Middle) standing with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, (L) and his husband Chasten (R).
(Photo courtesy of Landon Richie)

The special gathering held under a vaulted glass and aluminum ‘tent’ on the South Lawn of the White House was attended by 2,000 guests including former first lady Laura Bush, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, his husband Chasten, as well as teachers, nurses, LGBTQ advocates and military families, who the White House had dubbed “everyday history-makers.”

During a pause in his performance earlier, the singer addressed former first lady Laura Bush, praising her husband, former President George W. Bush’s ongoing work on the Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which President Bush had initiated while in office and is credited with saving millions of lives across the African continent and helping to change the trajectory of the HIV/AIDS crisis globally.

“I want to say to the first lady, President Bush accelerated the whole thing with his PEPFAR bill. It was the most incredible thing,” he said to Mrs. Bush.

Sir Elton John performs at the White House, September 23, 2022
(Photo courtesy of Landon Richie)

President Biden Awards Elton John with National Humanities Medal:

Full Text of the President and the First Lady’s remarks:

THE FIRST LADY:  Hello!  Good evening.  Thank you, Athen.  It’s leaders like you, those helping the next generation live authentically and find their voice, who make me so hopeful for our future.

And thank you to Paul Buccieri and A&E for helping us put this event together.

Isn’t this incredible?    

First Lady Laura Bush is with us tonight.  And, Laura, it’s such an honor to welcome you and your family back to the White House. 

And finally, I want to say what a joy it is to be here with the man who has inspired, supported, and loved Sir Elton John for so many years: his husband, David. 

Few things have the power to bring us together like music.  It can compel us to move as one on the dance floor, to sing along with strangers when we hear that familiar tune.  It’s a voice for the feelings we can’t always define. 

When the piano plays, the strings swell, the drums beat in time with our hearts, we find joy or a balm for our sorrows or the harmonies that tell us we aren’t alone. 

And in that spirit, as we celebrate Elton John’s music, we also celebrate you — everyday history-makers. 

Many of you are my colleagues — fellow teachers, like Leah Michael Dillard.  (Applause.)  Love the teachers!  So, Leah has taught 7th grade English for 20 years.  And, Leah, your students are better thinkers and more engaged citizens because of you. 

We also have first responders and healthcare heroes like — like Dr. Amber Pearson.  Amber was the first person in her family to go to college.  And it wasn’t easy.  She worked multiple jobs, took out loan, and when she finally reached her dream, she gave back to others, as an audiologist for veterans and their families, serving the women and men who serve us so well. 

And in this crowd are leaders of the beautiful, bold, and diverse future we are building together, like Javier Gomez, a student from Miami.  When his governor passed a law targeting the LGBTQ community, he didn’t sit back. 

Javier, you remind us of the power of one person who is willing to speak up for what is right, and that’s what this night is all about.  Coming together, using our voices, celebrating that, here in America, our differences are precious and our similarities infinite.

Elton once said, “Music has healing power.  It has the ability to take people out of themselves for just a few hours.”

We’re here tonight to once again lose ourselves and be brought together — perhaps even healed — by the power of music. 

And now, I get to introduce another huge fan, who also happens to be the President of the United States and my husband, Joe Biden. 

THE PRESIDENT:  You had to stand for Jill, but you can sit for me.  Please, all have a seat.  Please, have a seat.

Thank you, Jill.  Thank you all for being here on such a special evening.

And, Athen, leaders like you are helping the next generation live an authentic voice.  And I want to thank you very much for introducing me.

Look, I — as my colleagues — many of whom from the Senate are still here, came tonight — they always used to kid me because I — I was quoting Irish poets on the floor of the Senate.

The think I did it because I’m Irish.  That’s not the reason; I did it because they’re the best poets in the world. 

One who we lost not too long ago, Seamus Heaney, once wrote, and I quote, “Once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice rises up, and hope and history rhyme.”

Throughout this incre- — his incredible career, Sir Elton John has been that tidal wave — a tidal wave to help people rise up and make hope and history rhyme.  Three hundred million records sold.  Seventy-one billboard hits, nearly half in the top ten.  Six Grammy Awards.  Two Oscars.  One Tony, among the multiple, multiple nominations across the board.  Four thousand performances around the world.  A singer, songwriter of our time, for all time.

On his final tour in Washington, Jill and I invited Elton to the White House to thank him on behalf of the American people.

So, like so many Americans, our family loves his music.  His songs take us — take us back to a time, a place, a memory.  Songs that make every day exceptional, help us connect and come alive.  And songs that reflect the artist’s gift, that sixth sense to imagine what no one else can, and then sing and play and dream until he sets that feeling free.

As Jill just mentioned, we’re joined by so many people that it’s — he’s set free to be themselves, to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. 

Families and advocates in the fight against HIV/AIDS — a fight — a fight that he has led with sheer will, and fight for those lives lost and those lives that we can save.

Leaders standing up for equality of all people, no matter who you are or who you love.

Every day — every day Americans of every generation, of every background who know that life can be cruel and full of struggle, but it can also be full of joy and purpose.

And we’re joined tonight by the UK Ambassador to the United States, Karen Pierce, during a difficult time.  Karen, thank you.  Thank you for being here, Karen.

Jill and I travelled to London to pay our respects to the Royal Family on the Queen’s passing.

Our hopes tonight — our hope is that Sir Elton John’s music heals the sorrow, as it often has in the past.

Throughout his career, Elton found his voice — not only his voice, but his voice to help others and help them find their voice.

With his hope, he made history rhyme for countless people in our nation.  That’s what tonight is all about.

Elton often talked about how American music changed his life and how the different genres and sounds influenced his own music and imagination.  It’s clear Elton John’s music has changed our lives.

To David and the boys, thank you for sharing your husband and dad with us tonight.  (Applause.)  And to Elton, on behalf of the American people, thank you — and I sincerely mean this — thank you for moving the soul of our nation. 

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The White House

Bisexual activists to meet with White House officials

Meeting to take place at HHS on Tuesday

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White House (Photo courtesy of Adam Schultz/White House)

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Tuesday will hold a meeting with a group of more than a dozen bisexual activists.

The meeting, which coincides with Bisexual Awareness Week, will take place at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services headquarters in D.C.

The Washington Blade has learned National LGBTQ Task Force Executive Director Kierra Johnson, Robyn Ochs, Fiona Dawson, Heron Greenesmith, Drs. Mimi Hoang and Lauren Beach, Khafre Kujichagulia Abif, Diana Adams, Nicole Holmes, Blair Imani, Tania Israel, Ellyn Ruthstrom, Belle Haggett Silverman and Ezra Young will attend the meeting that BiPlus Organizing US has coordinated.

Meeting participants will highlight three specific points

            • Funding priorities for bisexual health

            • Public health messaging and communications

            • Intimate partner violence within bisexual communities

BiPlus Organizing US will ask the Biden administration to illuminate the White House in the bisexual Pride colors and to issue a proclamation that acknowledges Celebrate Bisexual Day, which is on Friday. The group will also seek a White House-sponsored bisexual event in D.C. and a virtual post-meeting brief.

“The Sept. 20, 2022, policy brief meeting is a small step forward since the previous administration,” said BiPlus Organizing US. “However, we wish to work with government on addressing our issues to ensure that Bisexual Awareness Week and Celebrate Bisexuality Day 2023 are given equal recognition to that of June’s annual White House Pride events, and policy, funding, communications, messaging, data collection and more are distinctly considered for the bi+ community.”

Meeting participants on Monday will attend a BiPlus Organizing US reception in D.C. Information about the meeting can be found here.

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The White House

Biden meets with Brittney Griner’s wife, agent

WNBA star last month sentenced to nine years in Russian penal colony

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Brittney Griner (Photo by Kathclick via Bigstock)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Friday met with Brittney Griner’s wife.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a statement said the meeting took place at the White House. A pool report noted Biden met with Cherelle Griner and Brittney Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas.

White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan also participated in the meeting.

Biden also sat down with Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after his conviction for spying.

A Russian court last month convicted Brittney Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist — of smuggling drugs into the country and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony. 

Brittney Griner’s lawyers have appealed her sentence.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly acknowledged the U.S. has offered Russia a deal to secure the release of Griner and Whelan. 

American officials have reportedly expressed a willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a prisoner swap. A spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry has confirmed negotiations between the two countries over a potential prisoner swap have begun.

“President Biden met today with Elizabeth Whelan and Cherelle Griner, the loved ones of two American citizens who are wrongfully detained in Russia under intolerable circumstances. Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of Paul Whelan, and Cherelle Griner, the wife of Brittney Griner, met separately with the president in the Oval Office,” said Jean-Pierre in her statement. “The president held the meetings to reiterate his continued commitment to working through all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely. He asked after the wellbeing of Elizabeth and Cherelle and their respective families during this painful time. The president appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Brittney and Paul from those who love them most, and acknowledged that every minute they are being held is a minute too long,” 
 
“Today’s meetings come after earlier meetings and conversations that the president, his national security team, and the State Department have held with the Whelan and Griner families to keep them updated on efforts to secure the release of their loved ones as quickly as possible,” added Jean-Pierre. “We all admire the courage of the Whelan and Griner families in the face of these unimaginable circumstances, and we remain committed to reuniting them with their loved ones.”

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