FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
August 24, 2022
New York City Monkeypox Whistleblower Testifies About Health Department’s Dangerous Monkeypox Public Messaging
Dr. Don Weiss Repeatedly Told City Officials that Advising the Public – “Sores Should be Covered” When Having Sex — was Wrong Based on the Science and Medicine
WASHINGTON—At today’s New York City Council Health Committee Oversight Hearing on Monkeypox in New York City, Government Accountability Project testified on behalf of and submitted for the record the written testimony of its client, Dr. Don Weiss.
Dr. Weiss is the NYC Department of Health’s most senior epidemiologist who, until August 1, was leading the City’s fight against Monkeypox. Dr. Weiss is a whistleblower. He was stripped of his duties and transferred to a remote office after raising concerns about danger to public health and safety due to the Department’s erroneous public messaging on how to prevent the spread of the infection.
In his testimony, Dr. Weiss said that, for over two decades, he has led or participated in investigations on every major public health crisis and has consistently received the highest annual evaluations. He elaborated on Monkeypox’s explosive growth: three months ago there were no suspected or reported cases in the United States. According to public health authorities, there are now over 44,000 cases worldwide, the U.S. now leads the world with almost 16,000, New York State leads the nation with over 3,000 and New York City leads the State with almost 2,800. In the city, over 2,350 are men between the ages of 25 and 54; over 1,600 identify as LGBT+.
The Health Department publicly disclosed the first suspected Monkeypox case on May 19, 2022. Over the next two months, it provided appropriate advice to the public, such as “do not engage in sex or other close physical contact … if you or your partners are sick and especially if you or they have a new or unexpected rash or sores.” On July 15, 2022, the Department changed its advice. Its messaging now states: “[f]or those who choose to have sex while sick, … sores should be covered with clothing or sealed bandages.”
The changed messaging alarmed Dr. Weiss. He wrote, the new messaging was “Unbelievable” and should be: “If you wish to avoid monkeypox, DON’T HAVE SEX, most importantly, not anonymous/multiple partner sex.” Many Health Department managers and colleagues agreed.
Dr. Weiss testified that time was and is of the essence. Based on the Department’s obvious inability to correct the flawed messaging, and in the hope that public disclosure would alert the LGBT+ community so that they could the needed steps to protect themselves, Dr. Weiss met with and shared his and his colleagues’ concerns with the New York Times staff.
Dr. Weiss alerted Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan and eight other senior managers before the Times article was published. In his email he wrote that “[t]he evidence is overwhelming,” that Monkeypox is a sexually transmitted infection and that “[n]ot communicating this clearly and often is a public health failure.” He further wrote, “I cannot in good conscience permit improper messaging to continue. I have shared the above information with The New York Times with the goal of fulfilling the health department’s mission of informing the public about communicable disease risk.” Neither Commissioner Vasan nor anyone else replied or ever spoke to Dr. Weiss about his concerns.
Four days after the Times article was published, Dr. Weiss was abruptly transferred to a Health Department outpost where he had never worked – due to agency “urgency.” Dr. Weiss was given new tasks that supposedly “better align” with agency operations. Instead of managing the Monkeypox pandemic, his new job – in the Maternal, Infant and Reproductive Health Bureau – has him creating training slides (which already exist) for new parent home visiting staff.
Dr. Weiss’ written testimony is attached here. Government Accountability Project’s David Z. Seide testified on behalf of Dr. Weiss. He added:
This is obvious retaliation. There was no “urgent need” for reassigning Dr. Weiss; there was no “realignment” in agency operations. Dr. Weiss publicly called out how the Department’s flawed advice endangers the LGBTQ+ community who right now are at greatest risk. His concerns continue to be ignored. Commissioner Vasan continues to stand by this advice (it remains publicly posted). Dr. Weiss should be reinstated immediately. The public is entitled to the best public health experts available.
Contact: Andrew Harman, Government Accountability Project Communications Director
Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.