The brother of Brett Shaad, the 33-year-old West Hollywood resident who died from bacterial meningitis Saturday, condemned public statements made by West Hollywood Councilmember John Duran on Monday, calling the politician’s remarks that set off a media frenzy “sensationalist” and “erroneous.”
“At a time when we should have been focused totally on Brett’s care, our family spent a huge amount of time and energy trying to correct the news reports that resulted from Duran’s statements,” said Brian Shaad. “Eight days have now passed since Brett’s first symptoms, and this still remains an isolated case.”
In addition to Shaad’s family, Duran has been criticized by some members of the gay community for his efforts to publicize Shaad’s death, for seeming to link it to the Palm Springs White Party, a major gay event, and for suggesting that the disease could be transmitted at WeHo gay “orgies” and drug-fueled parties at WeHo gay clubs.
In an interview with WEHOville Monday, Duran said he had not given any misinformation and that he sent a note to the Shaad family Saturday apologizing for intruding on their privacy. Duran said he had not identified Brett Shaad by name at a press conference he called on Friday to talk about Shaad’s death, as some news organizations have reported. At the press conference, he announced that there was a West Hollywood resident gravely ill with bacterial meningitis and warned the gay community of the potential spread of the disease. Later that night he tweeted that the resident had been taken off life support.
“I had to balance between the individual’s privacy, which I respected, and my responsibility to alert the community that we had a deadly strain of bacteria in our midst,” Duran said. “To have not sounded the alarm would have been more irresponsible.”
Based on Duran’s tweet, which he notes did not identify Shaad by name, a number of news organizations, including the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times and WEHOville, reported that Shaad had died. Shaad’s family, however, has said that Shaad was not taken off life support until Saturday evening. Duran says an LA County coroner’s report pronounced Shaad dead at 3:40 p.m. Friday.
In his statement, Brian Shaad criticizes Duran for not contacting the Shaad family before speaking publicly and accuses the council member of seeking publicity for himself.
“Other than basic information like my brother’s name, age and occupation, the rest of Duran’s statement and the media articles that followed were factually incorrect, including the time of his death, day admitted to hospital, status of life support and the strain of meningitis in question,” Brian Shaad said.
“To add insult to injury, the first article published wasn’t even about my brother Brett. It was about Councilman John Duran, alongside a large, color photo of the councilman in the LA Times,” continued Shaad, who called Duran’s media event “politically driven.”
Duran argued that not sounding an alarm immediately would have left West Hollywood’s gay community vulnerable to the same sort of devastation wrought by AIDS, which took too long to be diagnosed and is definitively linked to same-sex intimate encounters.
“My brother is not the Patient Zero to an epidemic that Councilman Duran made him out to be,” Brian Shaad responded.
“I wouldn’t change for a second the urgency,” said Duran, who added that he never expected his press conference to make national headlines. “When I looked up that people in New York were dying in four to seven days, I didn’t want to have the prospect of a handful of other gay men thinking they were having the flu — and then a rash of deaths.”
Duran said Sunday during a media teleconference that he didn’t want the gay community to be stigmatized by labeling meningitis as a “gay disease.” However, in an interview with WeHo News, he defended his rush to link Shaad’s death to a possible epidemic in the gay community by saying that meningitis could be spread at what he described as gay orgies in West Hollywood and during drug-fueled nights at the city’s Boystown nightclubs.
” … I think what I wanted to occur here was that somebody came up with these symptoms of meningitis that they would know, don’t assume it’s just the flu. Let’s just say an orgy, it doesn’t even have to be the White Party, we still have orgies that occur in West Hollywood and if you attend an orgy in West Hollywood, and within three to four days you have severe headaches, neck pain and a fever, you may have been exposed to meningitis,” he told WeHoNews.
“If you are out on a dance floor where people are sharing water bottles because they are taking drugs, which is another common thing that happens where people are sharing water bottles, when they are dancing, that is a non-sexual way to contract meningitis, by sharing that water bottle.”
When asked whether he thought his comments regarding gay orgies and drug usage might stigmatize the gay community with the national press, Duran said he believes in “harm reduction.”
“I do believe it is important to speak the truth about how meningitis or HIV or STDs can possibly be spread,” he said. “I was using two examples (one sexual and one non-sexual) to make the point that there are practices by some segments of the gay community that might place people into higher levels of risk.”
When asked if he worried whether his comments might keep people from visiting West Hollywood, or going out to Boystown venues, he said, “I do not think I am scaring off business but instead speaking frankly about some behaviors which do exist in our community.”
Out of 500 fatalities a year from meningitis only a handful have been among gay men. A deadly strain of meningitis among gay men in New York City has resulted in seven deaths since 2010.
“The strain mentioned has killed heterosexuals and homosexuals alike since cases in NYC were first reported in 2010. This is not a gay disease,” Briad Shaad said.
Duran also linked Shaad’s illness to the White Party in Palm Springs, an annual event that draws thousands of gay men from California and across the country, and advised those who had attended the White Party to see a doctor if they had any symptoms of the disease. Duran told WEHOville that he did not actually state that Shaad had attended the party, but mentioned the event as an example of a place where large groups of gay men gather and might risk infection. However, a transcript of his Friday press conference made available to WEHOville quotes Duran mentioning the White Party and saying “this person was in fact in attendance at the White Party, it raises an issue.”
“… We have no evidence he even attended the party, as Councilman Duran claimed,” Brian Shaad said, an assertion that is supported by a friend of Shaad’s who said that during their Easter weekend visit to Palm Springs Shaad did not attend White Party events.