Dr. Don Weiss, the director of surveillance for the New York City Health Department’s Bureau of Communicable Disease, is being removed from his post after criticizing the city's response to a worsening monkeypox outbreak.
His new assignment at the Division of Family and Child Health begins on Monday, according to an official letter from a human resources executive at the department that Weiss posted on his personal website.
The letter is dated July 22nd – just days after Weiss publicly disagreed with the city’s public health messaging around monkeypox in an article in the New York Times. Weiss said in the story that the department acted irresponsibly by not advising people at high risk for the disease — specifically, men who have sex with men — to temporarily reduce their number of sexual partners.
Weiss declined to comment for this story. But in an audio recording posted on his website, he can be heard asking the person notifying him of his reassignment whether he can appeal the decision. He also said the move could be viewed as retribution: “You are aware under the whistleblower statute that you cannot do any retribution to me for my coming forward with information that I thought was necessary for the public to know?”
New York state recently expanded its law protecting whistleblowers. The statute prohibits employers from taking retaliatory action against an employee for disclosing information about a practice they reasonably believe “poses a substantial and specific danger to the public health or safety.”
On his website, Weiss added, “In the midst of a worsening monkeypox pandemic, overlapping with continued waves of COVID-19 ... the NYC Department of Health decided to transfer (sideline) its most senior communicable disease epidemiologist (me) out of the program where he has worked for 22 years.”
In response to questions about why Weiss was transferred, city health department spokesperson Michael Lanza said, “We don’t publicly discuss personnel matters. Agencies make various personnel changes based on their operational needs.”
According to the New York Times article, Weiss was not the only one at the department who disagreed with the city’s public health advice on monkeypox — particularly around how to reduce risk during sexual activity.
The health department’s website currently advises, “If you choose to have sex while sick, avoid kissing and other face-to-face contact. Also, cover all sores with clothing or sealed bandages. This may help reduce — but not eliminate — the risk of transmission.”
The guidance goes on to say, however, “Having sex or other intimate contact with multiple or anonymous people … increases your risk of exposures.”
Weiss wrote an email to a colleague in June saying that senior health officials seemed “paralyzed by fear of stigmatizing this disease,” according to the Times.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its own guidance echoing Weiss’ recommendation that gay and bisexual men temporarily limit their number of sexual partners to prevent monkeypox transmission.
But public health experts and activists have been divided on how to properly frame messaging around monkeypox in order to contain the spread and keep people safe without stigmatizing it as a “gay disease,” as HIV was in the early stages of that epidemic.
Anyone can get monkeypox, as it is primarily spread by skin contact with infected tissue or close exposure to infected breath. It is not exclusively transmitted via sexual activity because, as researchers with a global collaboration stated last week, “there is no clear evidence of sexual transmission through seminal or vaginal fluids.”