Trump picks Pence to be coronavirus czar despite botched response to HIV outbreak in Indiana

Mike Pence's "defining moment" as a one-term governor was "enabling an HIV outbreak" in 2015

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published February 27, 2020 11:32AM (EST)

Mike Pence (Getty/Joe Raedle)
Mike Pence (Getty/Joe Raedle)

President Donald Trump announced that Mike Pence will oversee the country's response to the coronavirus, even though the vice president was widely criticized for mishandling an HIV outbreak during his time as governor of Indiana.

Trump's announcement "blindsided" Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who had spearheaded the administration's efforts, according to The Washington Post.

Journalists quickly reminded Trump that he slammed former President Barack Obama for appointing someone with "zero experience in the medical area and zero experience in infectious disease control" during the Ebola crisis in 2014.

"A total joke!" Trump tweeted that October.

"If you're choosing someone who's going to lead a response for a major epidemic that has the potential to become a pandemic . . . then you choose somebody who has a lot of experience — maybe with a medical degree or at least someone who has a long track record dealing with infectious disease outbreaks, global health, pandemic preparedness or biosecurity," Steffanie Strathdee, the associate dean of global health at the UCSD School of Medicine, told BuzzFeed News, adding that Pence appeared to be chosen because he would "follow the party line."

Trump, whose Wednesday news conference appeared focused on downplaying the risks posed by the virus to battle back the growing criticism of his response, insisted that Pence was actually an "expert" well-suited to deal with a virus which has spread to dozens of countries, infecting more than than 82,000 people and killing at least 2,800. Some experts predict the virus could infect 40% to 70% of the world's adult population.

"When Mike was governor — Mike Pence of Indiana — they have established great health care. They have a great system there," Trump said at his news conference. "A system that a lot of the other states have really looked to and changed their systems. They wanted to base it on the Indiana system. It's very good, and I think he is really very expert in the field."

"He's got a certain talent for this," Trump added.

But Pence's "defining moment" as a one-term governor was "enabling an HIV outbreak" in 2015 that was the worst in Indiana's history, health reporter Erin Schumaker wrote at HuffPost.

Pence helped lay the groundwork for the crisis when he was still in Congress in 2011 and wrote an amendment to defund Planned Parenthood. After Pence took over as governor, Indiana's Scott County's lone Planned Parenthood clinic closed due to health spending cuts. The Planned Parenthood clinic was the only HIV testing center in the county, leaving the area's 24,000 residents without necessary resources, Schumaker wrote. The county was particularly hit hard, because roughly one in five residents live below the poverty line and intravenous drug use is a rampant problem.

The cuts led to an HIV crisis linked to injection drug use within just two years. By 2015, health officials reported as many as 20 new cases of HIV in the county each week. Nearly 200 people were diagnosed with HIV before the outbreak was contained.

The Obama administration urged needle exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV, but Pence strongly pushed back on the idea. As the number of HIV cases continued to rise, Pence turned to prayer, The New York Times reported. He did not declare a public state of emergency until two months after the outbreak began and did not allow a temporary needle exchange in the area until nearly four months after the outbreak began.

"It was disappointing that it took so much effort to bring the governor on board," State Rep. Ed Clere, a fellow Republican, complained to The New York Times in 2016. By 2018, Yale University researchers concluded that the crisis could have been prevented had Pence and his administration acted sooner.

"Our findings suggest that with earlier action the actual number of infections recorded in Scott County — 215 — might have been brought down to fewer than 56, if the state had acted in 2013, or to fewer than 10 infections, if they had responded to the [hepatitis C] outbreak in 2010-2011," Forrest Crawford, the paper's lead author, said in a statement.

Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves, who was part of the study, said Wednesday that Pence's appointment to lead the coronavirus response "speaks to a lack of seriousness by the White House."

"I can't even explain how bad an idea this is," he wrote. Trump "made the choice of putting someone absolutely not up to the task to this crucial position. It endangers us all," he added.

Many also pointed to a 2000 op-ed Pence wrote downplaying the risk of smoking.

"Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn't kill," he wrote at the time.

"Mike Pence literally does not believe in science," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted Wednesday. "This decision could cost people their lives. Pence's past decisions already have."

But health experts have sounded the alarm on Pence's approach to public health for years before he was picked to oversee the response to a virus which experts believe could sicken the majority of the world's population.

"Pence's public health record in Indiana seems to be out of the election spotlight," Schumaker complained in 2016, calling it a "frustrating oversight" given the spread of HIV in his state as "Pence twiddled his thumbs over harm reduction and de-emphasized public health spending."

"So the question remains: Do we really want to see Pence's public health judgment replicated on the national stage?" she prophetically wrote at the time. "Our collective health may depend on that answer."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregate Alex Azar Barack Obama Coronavirus Donald Trump Health Hiv Mike Pence Politics Scott County