HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – Dr. John Whitehead and his husband, Dr. Alain Ramirez were both diagnosed with the new coronavirus disease in March.
Whitehead said the news was unexpected because they both live a healthy lifestyle. The experience with the highly contagious respiratory illness was terrifying.
“Every time we thought we were turning the corner and doing better, we would get hit with another set of symptoms,” said Whitehead, a surgeon who performs gender-affirming male-to-female genital surgeries.
Whitehead and Ramirez survived, and since they have fully recovered, their plasma has antibodies that have helped to boost some patients’ ability to fight the virus. But they are unable to donate the convalescent plasma because they are gay and sexually active.
Gay and bisexual men face U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s blood donation restrictions dating back to the 1980s. Public health officials established them to reduce the risk of human immunodeficiency virus infections.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gay and bisexual men account for about 70% of new HIV infections in the U.S. each year. And although HIV testing, education, and treatment have improved, critics argue the restrictions have not changed to reflect that.
On April 2, the FDA’s Blood Products Advisory Committee revised its blood donor guidelines by shortening the period of sexual abstinence for gay and bisexual men from 12 months to 90 days. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said the change reflects the time it takes to detect HIV.
Some experts disagreed. In a letter addressed to the Blood Products Advisory Committee and Adams, about 500 healthcare professionals urged the FDA to further reduce the sexual abstinence period. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation gathered the signatures.
“HIV nucleic acid testing is nearly 100% sensitive and narrows the window period to approximately 10 days from the time of infection,” the letter said, arguing three months is still discrimination and the “shortage could be alleviated if antiquated restrictions lacking scientific data were responsibly lifted.”
Whitehead and Ramirez said they were very happy to go back to work. Whitehead said the availability of personal protective equipment is not limited and he feels grateful that the disease hasn’t been as deadly in South Florida as it has been in other parts of the country.
“I went to school in Connecticut. I trained in New York. I have been in touch with multiple friends — colleagues from New York who have, basically, told me how scared they are,” said Ramirez, an anesthesiologist.
Whitehead wants people to remember that healthcare professionals still don’t have anything to stop the coronavirus, so people have to do their part to prevent the spread from rising again.
It is still unknown if reinfections are possible.
“We would all love to go back to the beach,” Ramirez said. “We would all like to get our lives back together, but, we have to be safe.”