Dr. Don Weiss isn’t taking his reassignment lying down.
As Gothamist reported two weeks ago, the senior epidemiologist was removed from his post as director of surveillance at the New York City health department’s Bureau of Communicable Disease — a division charged with aiding outbreak responses. His transfer came shortly after he criticized the city’s messaging around monkeypox, and he was moved to the Division of Family and Child Health.
Now, Weiss wants to be reinstated, and he has enlisted the help of the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy group that has represented such high-profile figures as Edward Snowden — who leaked information about electronic snooping programs run by the National Security Agency — and Phyllis McKelvey, who sounded the alarm about faulty food safety inspections while at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
On Monday, the watchdog group sent a letter to New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan informing him that Weiss is seeking his old job and that he will be “using city and state laws, rules, and regulations protecting whistleblowers to help him get that and other relief.”
Patrick Gallahue, a spokesperson for the city health department, told Gothamist “staffing decisions are based on operational need.” But the letter from the Government Accountability Project asserts, “The reassignment is a demotion; Dr. Weiss is a victim of unlawful whistleblower retaliation.”
David Seide, an attorney with the Government Advocacy Project who is representing Weiss, said there are various measures the group can take to try to get Weiss reinstated, including reaching out to the New York City Department of Investigation to conduct an internal review. In order to receive protection under the city’s whistleblower law, municipal employees must report misconduct to the Department of Investigation, the City Council, the comptroller or the public advocate.
“A lawsuit is one of our options, but it’s far from the only option,” Seide said.
The letter comes as some in the medical and public health fields are speaking out about Weiss’ reassignment. On Sunday, former colleagues of Weiss launched a petition for his reinstatement. It was organized by Dr. Patricia Edmondson, a pediatric pulmonologist in Flushing who did her medical residency with Weiss in the 1980s, and Adey Tsega, an epidemiologist and former city health department employee. Tsega said she is familiar with Weiss and his work but does not know him personally.
“The role of epidemiologists is to give accurate, clear information in a timely manner without worrying about any other thing,” said Tsega. “He did his job.”
As of Tuesday morning, the petition had 159 signatures out of its goal of 200. Sue Gower, a former school nurse at the private Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx, said Weiss was “tireless” in helping her and other school nurses make health and safety decisions related to COVID-19.
“I'm sure he had lots of other things to do besides speak with school nurses,” said Gower, who signed the petition to have Weiss reinstated, “but he was readily available.”
On his personal website, Weiss has shared emails he sent to colleagues within the city health department in mid-June suggesting that the monkeypox outbreak could have been contained if health officials encouraged higher-risk groups — gay and bisexual men and transgender people — to temporarily limit their number of sexual partners and avoid anonymous sex.
While some in the public health community say it’s premature to label monkeypox as a sexually transmitted disease, there is evidence that the current outbreak outside of Africa has largely spread through intimate contact among those groups.
The New York Times published a story on July 22nd stating that the city health department was still resisting guidance around limiting sexual activity, instead telling those who “choose to have sex or other intimate contact while sick” to “cover all rashes and sores with clothing or sealed bandages.” Weiss was quoted in the story, saying, “We’re not telling people what they have to do to be safe.”
That controversial advice is still on the health department website, but it also added messaging about limiting sexual partners after similar guidance was adopted by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meanwhile, back in June, Weiss was expressing worries that the city’s health department was acting too slowly. “We don't have much time to intervene and it may already be too late,” he said in an email sent to department officials on June 16th.
Weiss told Gothamist he redacted the names of the email recipients because they were reluctant to have their names revealed “based on what happened to me.”
Edmondson said she initially reached out to Weiss to thank him for speaking out after reading the New York Times' story. At the time she said, “I had fear that he would be retaliated against.”
Both Edmondson and Tsega emphasized that Weiss, who has been at the city health department for 22 years, has played a key role in limiting the spread of disease in New York City well beyond monkeypox. Edmondson noted, for example, that she is affiliated with Jamaica and Flushing hospitals in Queens and during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York, “he was our point person.”
“I don’t think the public realizes the importance of Dr. Weiss’ role and expertise and what he has done … to keep us healthy and out of danger,” Edmondson said.