But more and more right-wing critics have painted him as a caricature, far different from an actor who roams the Italian countryside in search of mouth-watering treats. After scouring Daskalakis’ Instagram feed, Thirst Trap posted shirtless posts featuring tattoos – accusing him of being a Satanist.
Daskalakas makes no effort to hide that he is different from the ordinary civil servant. Even today, he eschews the baggy blue suit, opting for black skinny jeans, a gray jacket, a red textured tie and signature black details.
Not because the tears are being attacked by ultra-conservatives. Instead, they beat him to explaining why he went into public health, recalling that he wanted to focus on HIV/AIDS. It’s his ambition that eventually led him to high political power and in recent weeks has led to sharp criticism of the administration’s response to the monkey disease.
As a child, he always knew he wanted to be a doctor (“Fisherman’s Price Play Kit,” he muses). But it wasn’t until he was an undergraduate at Columbia University that he had an epiphany.
He says he was working on a large display of AIDS memorial quilts, and was commissioned to fly to San Francisco to bring back “a roll of carpet that looked like a body in a curtain.” On the day the exhibit opened for the finished quilt, he saw men his age — people who should have been enjoying their 20s — come in, coughing and burning with a disease that could kill them.
“My job is to make sure that no one gets HIV or that people don’t get sick and die if they have HIV. He hit me like that,” he recalls, biting his fingers.
Daskalakas has been working in this field for more than 20 years, most recently as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a job he took on at the beginning of his administration. His role now is to take the experience and lessons learned from fighting infectious diseases and sexually transmitted infections and apply them to the current epidemic of monkeypox to prevent it from becoming a permanent national health crisis.
He and his boss, Robert Fenton, have taken over as the longtime Federal Emergency Management Agency official tries to become the monkeypox czar, as the administration grapples with slow responses and delays in testing and vaccine delivery.
Daskalakis said when he got the call about the White House position, he was initially reluctant.
“Oh, never again,” he says was his first thought. “It’s something else that takes me away from the reason I’m doing public health.”
He completed years of helping to manage the Covid-19 response in New York City, where he helped manage meningitis. He was tired and most of all he wanted to focus on HIV prevention.
Ultimately, the parallels between the first HIV epidemic and the monkey disease—specifically, its disproportionate impact on the queer community—prompt him to give his work a second look.
“I can’t be mad about being taken away from HIV because if I crack the code to get a young black and Latino [men who have sex with men], gay, bisexual or transgender people or gender variant people…. to take the vaccine,” he reports, but indirectly: if it reaches this community, it could also be beneficial for HIV prevention. Before taking office, Biden told him he wanted to make sure that the disproportionate impact on LGBTQ people of color was not replicated by the monkey disease.
Daskalakis and Fenton are credited in the administration for coordinating government efforts across the various health agencies involved in the monkeypox response. Both were among the strongest voices pushing the administration to declare a public health emergency as soon as possible, something Bidden did three days after the appointment was reported.
Criticisms of the answer have not stopped, though. Greg Gonsalves, a global health advocate and epidemiologist at Yale University, praised the efforts of Daskalakis and Fenton but questioned “how much power and influence they have to shape this epidemic going forward.”
“It’s not about their personal character, it’s about the bureaucratic power they have to effect change,” he said.
Daskalakis has used his connections to coordinate management initiatives and track the spread of the disease at the CDC, which has clashed with the White House and other agencies during the Covid response. But his toughest job is building trust in the LGBTQ community, frustrated and scared by the slow response, senior officials say.
“Demeter has been able to play a significant role in identifying areas of friction, areas where rapid improvements can be made to the process,” Fenton said in an interview.
In the past month, monkeypox rates have decreased and vaccine availability has increased. But so is the demand for vaccines. According to the latest CDC data, more than 460,000 vaccinations have been administered in 34 states and New York City. This is 14 percent of the 3.2 million doses the government needs to fully vaccinate the 1.6 million people at high risk. But despite a pilot program last month to offer jabs using large events, the administration is seeing demand for supplies.
The administration experienced something similar with HIV-19: Just because it was available didn’t mean high-risk groups could get their hands on it. Daskalakis, however, said he has experience dealing specifically with communities of color. In New York, he is known for entering bathhouses and sex clubs to conduct STD tests and educate his patrons.
“Not one of those white coat health bobble heads… disconnected [the community] And you’re wagging your finger at someone,” says Kenyon Farrow, advocacy and organizing manager at Prep4All in New York. “People really respond to it.”
But that has turned Daskalakis into an easy target for the conservative media, which has come under fire since his appearance at a White House press conference last week.
They included tweets saying so. “Joe Biden Appoints Satanist to White House”. Because of the pentagram tattoo. Another tweet showed his photo. Shirtless and “Really?” he asked. Many of the images were dug up from his Instagram page, which is filled with shirtless pictures of 30-plus other tattoos. An article with several photos of him titled “Dr. Daskalakis’ social media presence shows his penchant for pentagrams and other satanic symbols.
Daskalakis laughs out loud. For the record, he confirmed that he is not a Satanist. “I wish I was that fun.”
Like all his body art and shirtless photos, the absurd touch polices. “I spent a lot of money on my tattoos and spent a lot of time in the gym,” he explained. “I’m showing off.”
But the reaction to the photos raised bigger questions: Will press scrutiny force qualified people into public service? But mainly about whether government bureaucrats would benefit from having real-life experiences and more exposure.
“I believe there is light even in the darkest of places,” says Daskalakis, who has a pentagram tattoo on his left pike. He says it represents both his past as a bullied child and living through the AIDS crisis.
He noted that none of the articles mentioned the large tattoo of Jesus on his stomach, inspired by the Greek Orthodox Church where he grew up in Washington, DC.
He said the attacks were not a distraction. But this seems unbelievable. He has since made his Instagram page private.
Unlike most public health officials, Daskalakis sees the thirst traps as part of his job, not apart of it. His photo He was featured in the “Bare it All” ad campaign, where he ripped off his leather jacket and exposed his bare chest. When he was deputy commissioner of the city’s disease control division for the New York City Health Department. Images like these give him a level of confidence in those trying to reach people that other doctors can’t replicate, he said.
“I can’t get mad because otherwise I’d swing back and forth. [someone] He was rubbing my non-existent hair,” he says.
The White House reviewed Daskalakis’ social media presence when he was scouted for the current role, an official with knowledge of the process said. But there was no second opinion in the West Wing, the official said. If anything, Daskalakis’ apparent gay pride was seen as a boon in his administration’s efforts to build credibility with the LGBTQ community.
While Daskalakis admits he’s “in a good mood,” his mood darkens as he assesses the public’s response to monkeypox. Like HIV, it sees a growing stigma against the queer community.
He said his mind often goes back to the AIDS quilt with the family of Andy Grunebaum, who died of AIDS-related complications. The Grünebaum family made a large donation in his name to New York University, where Daskalakis was then an assistant professor.
The only requirement is that the beneficiary of the aid should have worked to fight AIDS. Daskalakis used some of the money to get a master’s in public health.
“A family, mother looking at you and saying, ‘We’ll give you this, but your job is to make sure people don’t suffer and die.’ That’s what I signed up for,” says Daskalakis.