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White House names FEMA’s Fenton as monkeypox coordinator

CDC’s Demetre Daskalakis to serve as deputy

Robert J. Fenton Jr. of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA-EFE)

The White House named Robert J. Fenton Jr. as coordinator of the nation’s monkeypox response amid a surging epidemic that has prompted three states to declare health emergencies.

Fenton is a regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where he has worked since 1996. He previously served as acting administrator of the agency. Fenton helped oversee the Biden administration’s efforts to set up coronavirus vaccination sites, which led to his being named a finalist this year for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals awarded by the Partnership for Public Service, a good-government group that celebrates federal employees and agencies.

The White House also named Demetre Daskalakis, a senior official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as a top deputy for Fenton.

“We look forward to partnering with Bob Fenton and Demetre Daskalakis as we work to end the monkeypox outbreak in America,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra said in an early-morning release from the White House.

The Washington Post previously reported that Fenton and Daskalakis would be tapped, citing four people with direct knowledge of the plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment about the pending announcement.

“We simply wouldn’t be where we are today in our nation’s fight against COVID-19 without the expertise and leadership of Bob Fenton,” Jeff Zients, the former White House coronavirus response coordinator, said as part of Fenton’s recognition. “He became an indispensable leader in the whole-of-government response — contributing to a historic, nationwide vaccination program.”

Daskalakis, a physician who previously served as a New York City health official, had helped lead the CDC’s HIV/AIDS work and has been involved in the federal response to monkeypox. Once profiled by the Atlantic magazine as “New York City’s ‘Gay Health Warrior’,” Daskalakis has also spent weeks publicly warning about the risks of monkeypox to men who have sex with men, as the virus predominantly spreads in that community.

“Fenton and Daskalakis will lead the Administration’s strategy and operations to combat the current monkeypox outbreak, including equitably increasing the availability of tests, vaccinations and treatments,” according to the announcement.

More than 5,800 cases of monkeypox have been confirmed in the United States, mostly in the gay and bisexual community, as public health experts fear that it may spill over to other populations and become permanently entrenched in the United States.

While federal officials have touted the availability of tests and treatments to combat the virus, patients and physicians have complained of bureaucratic barriers and lack of vaccine supply. Meanwhile, Illinois and California on Monday declared states of emergency, with officials saying that the moves would help cut red tape and raise awareness of the virus spread. New York state also declared a public health emergency on monkeypox last week.

“California is working urgently across all levels of government to slow the spread of monkeypox, leveraging our robust testing, contact tracing and community partnerships strengthened during the pandemic to ensure that those most at risk are our focus for vaccines, treatment and outreach,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said in a statement.

California, Illinois declare states of emergency over monkeypox

In his role as national coordinator, Fenton will steer a response that has previously been led by agencies like the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services, said an administration official who spoke on the condition on anonymity because they were not authorized to comment.

Asked at a Senate appropriations hearing in April 2021 about the Trump administration’s struggles coordinating the coronavirus response in 2020, Fenton touted FEMA’s ability to subsequently help organize the federal response.

“I think emergency management at all levels of government has a responsibility to be a coordinating function,” Fenton said. “I think that is something that FEMA does really well … to ensure that everyone is working toward a common set of goals and unity of effort.”