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PODCAST

R.I. public health expert received threats for serving transgender people

On the Rhode Island Report podcast, Dr. Amy Nunn talks about polio, sugary drinks, misinformation and a bit of good news about monkeypox

Dr. Amy Nunn, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute, spoke to Boston Globe reporter Edward Fitzpatrick on the Rhode Island Report podcast.Kenneth C. Zirkel

PROVIDENCE — Dr. Anthony Fauci isn’t the only public health expert who has received threats.

The executive director of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute, Dr. Amy Nunn, said she has frequently received similar threats for providing services to transgender people, part of her work at Rhode Island’s first LGBTQ health center.

“I just ignore all of it,” Nunn said on the Rhode Island Report podcast. “To be honest, that deep-seated homophobia propels me forward because I know that we have a long way to go if we have people in our society that can’t be kind to one another. We are glad to take care of the people that experience that discrimination and that type of oppression. It makes our work more rich and meaningful.”

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The Public Health Institute launched LGBTQ health center Open Door Health in March 2020.

Earlier this week, Fauci announced plans to step down as President Biden’s top medical adviser and as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which he has led for 38 years.

“I think he’s an extraordinary public servant, and I hold him in the highest regard,” Nunn said of Fauci. “I think that he had an uphill battle during the Trump administration when he was discouraged from promoting the best scientific evidence, and he served anyway against all odds and triumphed.”

Fauci spoke to Roger Williams University graduates in May, warning that lies, conspiracy theories, and the politicization of science can lead to a society where “veracity becomes subservient to propaganda.”

Nunn said she sees lots of misinformation being spread about public health matters. “That’s why I’m here today,” she said. “Because I believe that as scientists — I’m a scientist by training — it’s part of our public health duty to go beyond just writing articles but really work on disseminating the most important public information.”

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Nunn talked about the latest developments on COVID-19, monkeypox, sexually transmitted diseases, and polio.

Rhode Island has reported 40 cases of monkeypox, a rare but potentially serious viral illness, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’ve seen a little bit of a plateauing in the rate of (monkeypox) infection in the last couple of weeks as the state and clinics like ours, Open Door Health, have really begun mass vaccination campaigns,” she said. “So I really think the key is bending the curve early before we have more widespread transmission.”

Nunn also talked about Nourish RI, a coalition that advocates for a 50 percent discount on fresh fruit and vegetable purchases by recipients of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

This year’s state budget included $11.5 million for a pilot program to incentivize the purchase of fruits and vegetables with SNAP benefits, Nunn said, noting that it’s using federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars.

A similar proposal was introduced in 2021 by Senator Valarie Lawson and Representative Jean Philippe Barros that would have been paid for with a new tax on sugary drinks. “We believe that we had the legislative votes to pass that,” Nunn said. But she said Governor Daniel J. McKee indicated he would veto that legislation, so it did not pass.

Nunn said she’d like to revisit the sugary drink tax legislation.

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“We have among the highest rates of pediatric obesity in the country,” she said. “That’s really being driven by high rates of pediatric obesity among our Latinx children. The easiest and most cost effective way to address this is to reduce unnecessary consumption of sugar, and we should consider the sugary drinks tax in the future.”

While Rhode Island is facing a range of public health problems, one issue is being largely overlooked, Nunn said.

“The state of child health for our Latinx community is quite grave,” she said. “It’s not discussed publicly, but I think we need to elevate the conversation around child health for Latinx children in our state. Providence is 50 percent Latino, and you almost wouldn’t know, based on our public health and policy conversations.”

Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.