But increasingly right-wing critics have portrayed him as a caricature, quite unlike the actor who rolls through the Italian countryside in search of mouthwatering meals. As they search Daskalakis’ Instagram feed, they plucked shirtless posts from the thirst trap showing his tattoos and accusing him of being a Satanist.
Daskalakas makes no effort to hide that he is different from the ordinary government worker. Even today, he eschews the baggy blue suit and opts for black skinny jeans, a gray jacket, a textured red tie and his signature black specs.
His tears are not because he is the target of ultra-conservatives. Rather, they beat him when he explains why he went into public health, and reminded him to focus on HIV/AIDS. It’s a desire that eventually propelled him to supreme political power and a desire that has seen him intensely scrutinized in recent weeks amid criticism of the government’s response to monkeypox.
As a kid, he always knew he wanted to be a doctor (“Fisher Price playset,” he muses). But it wasn’t until he was a student at Columbia University that he experienced an epiphany.
Working on a major exhibit of the AIDS memorial quilt, he says, he was ordered to fly to San Francisco to return a “roll of carpet that looked like a body in a shroud.” On the day the exhibit opened for the finished quilt, he watched as men his age—people who should have been enjoying their twenties—came in, coughing and furious with a disease that would likely kill them.
“My job will be to never let anyone get HIV or if people have HIV, make sure they don’t get sick and die. It touched me so much,” he recalls with a snap of his fingers.
Daskalakas has worked in this field for nearly 20 years, most recently as director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s HIV/AIDS Prevention Division, a job he took at the beginning of administration. Now his role is to use and apply his experiences and lessons learned from fighting communicable diseases and sexually transmitted infections to the current monkeypox outbreak to prevent it from becoming the next permanent national health crisis.
He and his boss, Robert Fenton, the longtime Federal Emergency and Management Agency official dubbed the Monkeypox Czar, took over when the administration was criticized for its slow response and delay in providing tests and vaccines.
Daskalakis says that when he got the call about the White House position, he originally didn’t want it.
“Oh no, not again,” was his first thought, he says. “Another thing that will pull me away from the reason I do public health.”
He had just finished years helping to conduct 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.
In the end, the parallels between the first HIV outbreak and monkey pox — specifically, its disproportionate impact on the queer community — made him give the job a second look.
“I can’t really be mad at being drawn to HIV because if I crack the code to become young black and Latino, [men who have sex with men]people, gays, bisexuals or transgenders or people with gender diversity … to get the vaccine,” he says, but implying that if he effectively reaches this community, it could also be a breakthrough for HIV prevention. He says that before taking the job, Biden specifically told him he wanted to make sure the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on LGBTQ members of color wouldn’t repeat itself with monkeypox.
Daskalakis and Fenton have been credited within the administration for coordinating the government efforts of the various health agencies involved in the monkeypox response. They were both among the most fervent voices urging the government to declare a public health emergency as soon as possible, something Biden did three days after their appointments were announced.
However, the criticism of the response has not stopped. Gregg Gonsalves, a global health activist and epidemiologist at Yale University, praised Daskalakis and Fenton’s efforts, 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 change,” 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 government initiatives and monitor the spread of the disease. But his most difficult task, senior officials say, is to regain trust within the LGBTQ community, frustrated and frightened by the slow response.
“Demetre was able to play an important role where he identified bottlenecks, areas where rapid improvements can be made to the process to build that trust,” Fenton said in an interview.
Over the past month, monkeypox numbers have declined and vaccine availability has increased. But so does 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 says are at high risk. But despite a pilot program last month to use major events to offer jabs, the government sees supply catching up with demand.
The administration was dealing with something similar with Covid-19: Just because there was enough supply didn’t mean that high-risk groups could get their hands on it. But Daskalakis says it’s a pattern he has experience with, especially with communities of color. In New York, he was known for visiting bathhouses and sex clubs to perform STI tests and help educate his clients.
“He’s not one of these white-coated bobbleheads… disconnected from” [the community] and waving your finger at someone,” said Kenyon Farrow, the managing director of advocacy and organizing at Prep4All in New York. “People actually respond to him for that reason.”
But that has also made Daskalakis an easy target for conservative media, who hit him with a barrage of attacks after his appearance at the White House press conference last week.
They include tweets like the one that claimed Joe Biden Appointed a Satanist to the White House because of his pentagram tattoo. Another tweet contained a picture of him shirtless and asked “seriously?” Many of the images come from his Instagram page, which is chock-full of shirtless photos featuring over 30 other tattoos. An article with numerous photos of him stated, “Dr. Daskalakis’ social media presence reveals a fondness for pentagrams and other satanic symbolism.”
Daskalakis laughs the charges off. For the record, he confirms that he is not a Satanist. “I wish I was that interesting.”
As for all his body art and shirtless photos, he works down to a hint of vanity. “I spent a lot of money on my tattoos and a lot of time in the gym,” he explains. “I’ll show it.”
But the reaction to the photos has also raised bigger questions: about whether press scrutiny forces otherwise qualified people to enter public service; but especially about whether government bureaucrats would benefit from hands-on experience and greater approachability.
Daskalakis notes that the pentagram tattoo on his left chest reads, “I believe there is light in even the darkest place.” He says it represents both his past as a bullied child and going through the AIDS crisis.
He also points out that none of the articles ever mentioned the large Jesus tattoo on his stomach, inspired by the Greek Orthodox Church where he grew up and where he lived in Washington, D.C.
He says the attacks are not a distraction. But that seems hard to believe. He has since made his Instagram page private.
Unlike most public health officials, Daskalakis sees his thirst traps as part of his job, not separate from it. A picture of him taking off his leather jacket, exposing his bare chest, was featured in a ‘Bare it All’ ad campaign for the New York City Health Department while serving as the deputy commissioner of the city’s disease control division. He said such images give him a level of confidence in the people he’s trying to reach that other doctors can’t replicate.
“I don’t give a fuck because otherwise I’d be rocking back and forth and [someone] would stroke my nonexistent hair,” he says.
While he was being vetted for his current role, the White House assessed Daskalakis’ social media presence, an official with knowledge of the process said. But it didn’t lead to a second guess in the West Wing, the official said. In any case, Daskalakis’ status as a proud gay man was seen as an advantage in the government’s attempt to build credibility with the LGBTQ community.
While Daskalakis admits he is “pathologically in a good mood”, his character deteriorates as he judges elements of the public response to monkeypox. As with HIV, he sees the stigma on the queer community growing.
He says his thoughts often return to the AIDS quilt, 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 grant beneficiary must work to fight AIDS. Daskalakis used some of the money to get his master’s degree in public health.
“A family, a mother who looks at you and says, “We’ll give you this, but it’s your job not to let people suffer and die.” That’s exactly what I signed up for,” says Daskalakis.