Trump Names Mike Pence Lead on Coronavirus Response, as Critics Say Pence Once Mishandled HIV Outbreak

"It was disappointing that it took so much effort to bring the governor on board," a local Republican said about Indiana's HIV outbreak while Pence was in office

President Donald Trump on Wednesday night said Vice President Mike Pence will be leading the federal government’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak that American health officials believe will eventually reach the U.S.

Trump, 73, touted Pence’s track record on health care while Pence was governor of Indiana before being elected vice president.

“They’ve established great health care, they have a great system there, a system that a lot of the other states have really looked to,” Trump said, adding, “He’s really very expert at the field.”

Almost immediately after naming Pence, 60, to his czar-like role in combating coronavirus, journalists and Trump critics online quickly pointed back to Pence’s handling of an HIV outbreak while he was governor there and deeply conflicted about what his moral convictions would allow versus what experts said was the most effective solution.

As The New York Times reported in 2016, the outbreak was in Indiana’s Scott County in 2015 as a result of the use of dirty needles.

Needle exchanges were illegal and Pence initially resisted changing the rule, as dozens of people became infected. The total eventually reached almost 200.

“It was disappointing that it took so much effort to bring the governor on board,” a Republican lawmaker in Indiana told the Times.

Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence speaks at a White House briefing on Feb. 26. ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty

“When confronted with a spiraling HIV outbreak in his home state as a result of opioid addicts sharing contaminated needles, Pence dragged his feet before agreeing to lift a ban on programs that distribute sterile needles,” according to Politico.

Gregorio Millett, the Foundation for AIDS Research’s director of public policy, told Politico the the spread of the virus was “entirely preventable.”

“I am opposed to needle exchange as anti-drug policy,” Pence said then. “But this is a public health emergency and, as governor of the state of Indiana, I’m going to put the lives of the people of Indiana first.”

“We must give Gov. Pence credit for finally doing the right thing in the end,” Millett told Politico.

Still: “Indiana taxpayers could have been saved millions of dollars for treating those affected by the HIV outbreak if effective prevention policies were already in place,” he said.

“We have had great success in our needle exchange,” a local nurse told the Louisville Courier-Journal in 2016. “We know that we have pretty much stopped the spread of HIV. … We know it’s helped get people into rehab; we’ve linked them to [treatment]. … I know it’s working because I see it every day.”

Critics of Pence’s approach told Politico that what policy he did finally allow nonetheless hamstrung those Indiana counties beyond Scott County that wanted to use successful needle-exchange programs to slow the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.

Pence’s then-health commissioner cast the issue another way, according to the Times.

“The governor wanted to make sure if we went this route it was absolutely necessary,” Dr. Jerome Adams said in 2016. “I believe he was praying on it up until the final decision.”

Donald Trump

On Wednesday at the White House, after Trump named him the point person on the coronavirus response, Pence mentioned his time as governor when a person there became the first in the U.S. diagnosed with the MERS virus.

Earlier in the press conference, Trump spoke optimistically about the government’s response to the coronavirus so far. But he continued to use rosier language than the health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who said this week that Americans should prepare for more coronavirus cases here.

So far, some 81,000 cases have been reported worldwide of the coronavirus. Of those cases, about 2,700 people have died (By comparison, the Ebola epidemic that began in West Africa in 2014 infected about 28,600 people and killed about 11,300, according to the CDC.)

The infection is thought to have originated in a Chinese animal market in December.

Currently, the U.S. has 60 confirmed cases of coronavirus, most of them who were passengers aboard a cruise ship in Japan.

“I look forward, Mr. President, to serving in this role and bringing together all the members of the coronavirus task force you established,” Pence said Wednesday.

He added: “We will continue to bring the full resources of the federal government in coordination with our state and local partners to see to the health and wellbeing and to the effective response to the coronavirus here in the United States of America.”

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