WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA — Last Friday, as 35-year-old lawyer Brett Shaad lay in a coma brought on by a case of meningitis, West Hollywood City Councilmember James Duran announced that the gay community should be on “high alert” — and suggested that Shaad had contracted the fatal illness at the White Party in Palm Springs, a gathering of more than 10,000 gay men, two weeks ago.
According to his friends and family, Shaad, who died the following day, did not attend the White Party. In the days since Duran’s press conference, the councilman has come under fire for drawing a connection between the gathering and Shaad’s illness.
The incident illustrates the tightrope health officials in cities around the country are walking, attempting to respond to growing concerns about the spread of meningitis in the gay community without stigmatizing gay men as walking biohazards. Officials anxious to educate the public are being called scaremongers and criticized for characterizing meningitis as a “gay disease,” their critics are in turn being called complacent, and disagreement about how to respond to a potential outbreak is exposing a rift between generations of the gay community who remember the AIDS epidemic and those who don’t.
Brian Shaad, Brett’s brother, posted a note on Facebook thanking friends for their support, and excoriating Duran for what he called “sensationalist and erroneous public statements” based on “pure rumor and innuendo.” (A spokeswoman for the Shaad family told BuzzFeed the family is not commenting at this time.)
Jeffrey Sanker, founder of the White Party, told BuzzFeed via email, “There has never been a case of meningitis reported at the WPPS [White Party Palm Springs]. From what we all know to date, the origin of this case is inconclusive; nonetheless like many large gatherings gay or straight, people are often in close intimate contact with each other.”
Sanker added, “Politicians also have a responsibility to know the facts before creating panic in the community.”
Despite the criticism, Duran said he does not regret how quickly he moved to alert the public to what he views as an potential epidemic.
“I think that the urgency with which I acted was appropriate given the severity of the consequences,” Duran told BuzzFeed. “It’s deadly in a week. I didn’t have the luxury of sitting around an trying to find the best way to handle this, given than Brett Shaad went from fully fit to dead in a week.”
Duran is concerned that West Hollywood could be the site of an outbreak of meningitis similar to one affecting New York City, where there have been 22 cases of meningitis and seven deaths since 2010, and where public health officials recently issued new guidelines advising all men who “regularly have intimate contact with other men” to be vaccinated against the disease.
One week after officials in New York took action, officials in San Francisco advised gay men to be vaccinated against meningitis if they traveled to New York.
At a West Hollywood City Council meeting on Monday evening, the councilman directed the city manager to devote up to $25,000 to fighting meningitis, resources that could be devoted to both vaccines or an education campaign.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation in West Hollywood vaccinated 1,100 people against meningitis on Monday, and ordered another 2,500 vaccinations for today, according to Duran, who cited figures provided by the organization.
So far in 2013, there have been nine cases in Los Angeles — and three deaths, including Brett Shaad’s — of meningococcal disease, which can lead to meningitis, according to the Los Angeles Department of Public Health. It is unclear how many of those cases affected gay men.
It’s also still unclear how Shaad himself contracted the disease.
Cory B. Savage was with Shaad in Palm Springs the weekend of the White Party. “Our whole intent was going to relax,” Savage says of the weekend he, Shaad and four other friends spent on an estate in the Palm Springs area. Savage told BuzzFeed they only left the property twice, for dinner on Saturday and Sunday.
Contrary to Duran’s suggestion, Savage said, “We did not go to the White Party.”
They returned to Los Angeles on Monday, where a healthy Shaad went about his week. On Tuesday, Savage said that Shaad represented him in court. On Saturday, he went to dinner with friends but, uncharacteristically, didn’t finish his meal.
He began complaining of symptoms the next day. “He had a temperature and thought he had the flu,” Savage said. “His temperature was 103.7. One of our friends got him in cold shower and got his temperature down to 99. The next day he had the same symptoms but he had spots — his skin was spotty.”
On Monday afternoon around 2 p.m. Shaad went to a clinic, where he was told he probably had the flu. Three hours later, a friend of Shaad’s rushed the unresponsive 34-year-old to Cedars Sinai Hospital.
“In 30 seconds they knew what it was,” Savage said. The hospital started Shaad on treatment immediately, but he would remain in a coma until he died Saturday evening.
Duran, who has since apologized to the family, said even if Shaad didn’t attend the event itself the White Party remains “an example of a large gathering where people from New York — gay men from New York — could have come in contact with gay men from Los Angeles.”
He added that he feels for Shaad’s family. “They are in a lot of pain. They lost their son in a week. There is a lot of pain and shot and anger. I can understand — in the AIDS epidemic I lost 108 friends, and every death was very painful.”
It was his personal experience during the AIDS epidemic, said Duran, who is gay, that motivated him to act so swiftly in this case.
“People my age, 40 and above, are not the ones leveling criticism. They may be criticizing some of the clumsiness, but they are not questioning the urgency because this is déjà vu,” Duran said. “We walked this path before where we watched young gay men, in the prime of life, dropping like flies: healthy one day and dead the next.
“We all had that experience and we don’t want to go through it again,” Duran said.
Since the press conference, he added, others have come forward to report at least one other recent meningitis death in L.A.’s gay community. RJay Spoon was a resident of downtown Los Angeles who died on December 16. Spoon’s mother, Trish, confirmed to BuzzFeed that her son’s cause of death was bacterial meningitis.
“If there was a case less than three months ago, then there are two cases in the gay male community,” Duran said. “All of a sudden we’re starting to look a little closer to what happened in New York where eventually the Department of Public Health got to the point where they said ‘Okay, all gay men get vaccinated.’”
A memorial service will be held for Shaad in Los Angeles in two weeks, Savage said, promising the details will be announced once they are settled. As of now, Shaad’s loved ones are still looking for a location.
“I never thought at 35 years old I’d be planning my best friend’s funeral,” Savage said.