Demetre Daskalakis, who had been director of the CDC’s division on HIV/AIDS prevention, will become senior vaccine equity lead, according to the memo. Before joining the CDC last year, he was incident commander for covid-19 at New York City’s health department. In his new position, he will report directly to Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the CDC.
His responsibilities will include running outreach to states and other jurisdictions as they strive to close yawning racial gaps that have opened up in early immunization data, as well as coordinating with retail pharmacies and community health centers, which are cornerstones of the Biden administration’s efforts to bring shots to vulnerable communities buffeted most severely by the coronavirus.
The new position is a signal of the emphasis placed by the Biden administration on equity in its response to the pandemic.
Daskalakis will be the main CDC liaison to the White House team focused on these issues. Chief among them is Marcella Nunez-Smith, a former associate dean for health equity research at the Yale School of Medicine who is chairing the administration’s covid-19 health equity task force.
In response to a request for comment, Daskalakis provided an email he sent to colleagues on Friday.
“As we have seen in the HIV prevention space, long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from covid-19,” he wrote. “Racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately represented among covid-19 cases, as well as among HIV diagnoses. Social determinants of health, such as poverty and unequal access to high-quality health care, influence a wide range of health and quality-of-life outcomes and continue to drive inequities."
An activist, doctor and public health official at both the municipal and federal level, Daskalakis was most recently leading the CDC’s work on HIV prevention. He assumed that role last December, after six years at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He was the city’s deputy commissioner for disease control during the first nine months of the pandemic.
“We’re telling New Yorkers that they should assume that everyone has been exposed to covid-19,” he said in an interview in March 2020 with The Washington Post.
The challenges he now faces in ensuring vaccine equity are immense.
The CDC report showed that 63 percent of the nearly 13 million people vaccinated in that period were women, 55 percent were older than 50, and 60.4 percent were White. But race and ethnicity information was missing for about 48 percent of people who received at least one dose of the vaccine, though the data on gender and age was nearly complete.
“We must address these insufficient data points as an urgent priority,” Nunez-Smith said at the time.
As of March 15, 44 states were delineating vaccination data by race and ethnicity, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.
The analysis found a “consistent pattern across states of Black and Hispanic people receiving smaller shares of vaccinations compared to their shares of cases and deaths and compared to their shares of the total population.”
The pattern held from California, where Latinos are 40 percent of the population but account for 21 percent of vaccinations, to D.C., where Black people make up 46 percent of the population but account for 31 percent of vaccinations.
Akilah Johnson contributed to this report.