But increasingly, right-wing critics have painted him as a caricature, very different from the actor who roams the Italian countryside in search of delicious food. Sifting through Daskalakis’ Instagram feed, they pulled up seven trap shirtless posts that showed off his tattoos, accusing him of being a Satanist.
Daskalakas makes no effort to hide that he is different from the usual official. Even today, he eschews the baggy blue suit, opting for black skinny jeans, a gray jacket, a red textured tie and his black specs.
His tears are not because he is the target of ultra-conservatives. Rather, they hit him as he explains why he got into public health, recalling that desire he had to focus on HIV/AIDS. It’s a desire that eventually propelled him to the highest seats of political power and that, in recent weeks, has put him under intense scrutiny amid criticism of the administration’s smallpox response.
As a child, he always knew he wanted to be a doctor (“Fisher Price play equipment,” he reflects). But it wasn’t until he was a student at Columbia University that he had an epiphany.
He was working on a large display of the AIDS memorial quilt, he says, and was tasked with flying to San Francisco to bring a “carpet roll that looked like a body in a shroud.” The day the exhibit opened for the finished quilt, she watched as men her own age, people who should have been enjoying their 20s, came in, coughing and raging with a disease that was very likely to kill them. .
“My job will be to never let anyone get HIV or, if people do have HIV, to make sure they don’t get sick and die. It hit me like that,” she recalls with a pinch of her fingers.
For the better part of 20 years, Daskalakas has been working in this field, most recently as director of the HIV/AIDS prevention division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a job he took on at the beginning of administration Now, her role is to take her experiences and lessons learned from fighting communicable diseases and sexually transmitted infections and apply them to the current monkeypox outbreak to prevent it from becoming the next national health crisis permanent
He and his boss, Robert Fenton, the longtime Federal Emergency Management Agency official designated to be the monkey pox czar, took over as the administration was being censured by their slow response and delay in providing tests and vaccines.
Daskalakis says that when he got the call about the position from the White House, he originally didn’t want it.
“Oh no, not again,” was her first thought, she says. “Another thing that will take me away from why I’m doing public health.”
I had just finished years helping run the Covid-19 response in New York City, along with managing a meningitis outbreak there. He was tired, and more importantly, he wanted to focus on HIV prevention.
Ultimately, the parallels between the initial HIV outbreak and monkeypox, particularly its disproportionate impact on the queer community, made him take a second look at the work.
“I can’t really be upset that I retired from HIV, because if I figure out the code to get black and Latino youth, [men who have sex with men]gay, bisexual or transgender people or gender diverse people … to get the vaccine,” he says, hinting, but hinting: If it effectively reaches that community, it could be a game changer too for HIV prevention She says that before starting the job, Biden specifically told her that he wanted to make sure that the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on LGBTQ members of color does not repeat itself with monkey pox.
Daskalakis and Fenton have been credited within the administration with coordinating government efforts among the various health agencies involved in the monkeypox response. Both were among the most ardent voices pushing the administration to declare a public health emergency as soon as possible, which Biden did three days after his appointments were announced.
Criticism against the response has not stopped, however. Gregg Gonsalves, a global health activist and epidemiologist at Yale University, praised the efforts of Daskalakis and Fenton, but questioned “how much power and influence they have to shape the course of this outbreak going forward.”
“It’s not about their personal characteristics, it’s about the bureaucratic power they have to make changes,” he said.
Daskalakis has used his connections at the CDC, which clashed with the White House and other agencies during the Covid response, to align administration initiatives and track the spread of the disease. But their most difficult job, senior officials say, has been rebuilding trust within an LGBTQ community frustrated and frightened by the slow response.
“Demetre was able to play an important role when he identified areas of friction, areas where rapid improvements can be made in the process to build that trust,” Fenton said in an interview.
Over the past month, smallpox rates have slowed and vaccine availability has increased. But so has the demand for vaccinations. According to recent CDC data, more than 460,000 doses have been given in 34 states and New York City. That’s 14 percent of the 3.2 million doses needed to fully vaccinate the 1.6 million people the government said are at high risk. But despite a pilot program to use major events to deliver hits last month, the administration is seeing supply outpace demand.
The administration faced something similar with Covid-19: just because the supply was there didn’t mean high-risk groups could get their hands on it. But Daskalakis says it’s a pattern she has experience dealing with, especially with communities of color. In New York, he was known for going to bathhouses and sex clubs to test for STIs and help educate his clients.
“He’s not one of those white-coat health chiefs … out of touch [the community] and wagging someone’s finger,” says Kenyon Farrow, managing director of advocacy and organizing at Prep4All in New York. “People really respond to him for that reason.”
But that has also made Daskalakis an easy target for the conservative media, which hit him with a barrage of attacks after his appearance at the White House press conference last week.
They included tweets like the one he alleged “Joe Biden Appointed a Satanist to the White House” because of his pentagram tattoo. Another tweet showed a photo of him shirtless and asked, “really?” Many of the pictures were taken from his Instagram page, which is full of shirtless pictures showing off more than 30 other tattoos. An article featuring numerous photos of him said “Dr. Daskalakis’ social media presence reveals a penchant for pentagrams and other satanic symbolism.”
Daskalakis laughs at the burden. For the record, he confirms he is not a Satanist. “I wish I was that interesting.”
As for all his body art and shirtless photos, he smacks of vanity. “I spent a lot of money on my tattoos and a lot of time at the gym,” he explains. “I’m showing it.”
But the reaction to the photos has also raised larger questions: about whether press scrutiny forces otherwise qualified people into public service; but mostly about whether government bureaucrats would benefit from having real-life experiences and more accessibility.
Daskalakis notes that the pentagram tattoo on his left pectoral says, “I believe there is light even in the darkest place.” He says it represents both his past as a bullied child and living through the AIDS crisis.
He also notes that none of the articles have ever mentioned the large tattoo of Jesus on his stomach, inspired by the Greek Orthodox church he grew up attending in Washington, DC.
He says the attacks are not a distraction. But this seems hard to believe. He has since made his Instagram page private.
Unlike most public health officials, Daskalakis sees her thirst traps as part of her job, not separate from it. A photo of him tearing off his leather jacket, exposing his bare chest, appeared in a “Bare it All” advertising campaign for the New York City Department of Health while he was deputy commissioner of the inspection division of diseases of the city. He said those images help give him a level of trust with the people he’s trying to reach that other doctors can’t replicate.
“I don’t give a shit because otherwise I’d be rocking back and forth and [someone] I would be stroking my non-existent hair,” she says.
While he was being vetted for his current role, the White House reviewed Daskalakis’ social media presence, an official with knowledge of the process said. But it didn’t prompt any second-guessing in the West Wing, the official said. If anything, Daskalakis’ status as a proudly gay man was seen as an advantage in the administration’s effort to build credibility with the LGBTQ community.
Although Daskalakis admits to being “pathologically good-humored,” his disposition darkens when he assesses elements of the public reaction to monkeypox. As with HIV, he sees growing stigma against the queer community.
He says his mind often returns to the AIDS cover, along with the family of Andy Grunebaum, a man who died of AIDS-related complications. Grunebaum’s family made a large donation in his name to New York University, where Daskalakis was an assistant professor at the time.
The only requirement was that the recipient of the grant had to work to fight AIDS. Daskalakis used some of the money to get his master’s degree in public health.
“A family, a mother looking at you, saying: ‘We will give you this, but your job is not to let them suffer and die’. This is exactly what I signed up for,” says Daskalakis.