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Gay Activists Shame Health Officials For Missing Town Hall Meeting

By Gwynne Hogan | September 3, 2015 11:35am
 The empty chairs where city officials would have sat if they had attended the meeting.
The empty chairs where city officials would have sat if they had attended the meeting.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

Gay activists taped photos of city health officials on chairs to publicly shame them for ditching a town hall meeting to discuss the closure of Chelsea STD clinic and a surge in STD diagnoses.

In a move reminiscent of the Clint Eastwood's speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention, community leaders posted headshots of Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett, Deputy Health Commissioner Dr. Jay Varma and Mayor Bill de Blasio to chairs placed at the front of a packed auditorium Tuesday night as a snarky reminder that no city officials showed up to the meeting, activists said.

“The impression that we continue to get...[is that] they’re just not willing to involve community in this process,” said Jeremiah Johnson, an activist with the Treatment Action Committee.

The city abruptly shuttered its busiest STD clinic, located in Chelsea, this March for renovations that are scheduled to take at least two years, DNAinfo first reported.

Months later, it set up mobile testing in vans in front of the shuttered clinic as a temporary fix. Activists said the vans provide services to a fraction of the number of people the original clinic accommodated.

A report that the groups TAG and ACT UP released last week showed city funding for STD testing was slashed under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and never restored.

The decreased funding coincided with a 43 percent uptick in gonorrhea and and a nearly 20 percent increase in chlamydia, the report says.

From 2010 to 2011, HIV tests performed by the city dropped 36 percent and visits to STD clinics dropped by 33 percent, according to the report.

DNAinfo previously reported that syphilis rates were up across the city and in Chelsea, where they were six times higher than the city’s average.

"It basically sends the message that we don't care about you," said Noah Barth, 33, an audience member, who said he grew up in Chelsea. "It's a big middle finger."

The Chelsea STD clinic, located at 303 Ninth Ave., saw more patients than any other public clinic in the city and almost double the number of patients treated at any of the other 10 city-run STD clinics. In 2014, nearly 20,000 patients passed through its doors, accounting for more than 20 percent of all visits to public clinics, according to statistics from the Department of Health.

When asked why health officials did not come to the public meeting, Health Department spokesowman Veronica Lewin said the commissioner planned to meet with advocates at a later date.

“We have been meeting with ACT UP for months to discuss the temporary renovation of the Chelsea Clinic and our comprehensive interim service plan for mobile sites 5 days a week," she wrote. "As part of our ongoing relationship with ACT UP, Commissioner Bassett has invited them to a meeting at our office later this month.”

De Blasio's press office did not return a request for comment.