Shortly after the announcement that Vice President Mike Pence will lead the U.S. response to the coronavirus threat, media began insisting Pence had “caused” the largest HIV outbreak in Indiana under his watch as governor. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted, “As governor, Pence’s science denial contributed to one of the worst HIV outbreaks in Indiana’s history. He is not a medical doctor. He is not a health expert. He is not qualified nor positioned in any way to protect our public health.”
In spring 2015, more than 140 people were diagnosed with HIV in Austin, Indiana, a town with a population of about 5,000. By the following year, that number reached more than 200, with the media calling it the “largest HIV outbreak in state history.”
The primary cause of the outbreak was a sudden upsurge in the use of the opioid drug Opana. As NPR reported at the time, “People figured out how to get around a coating on the pills intended to deter abuse, prepared them for injection and then shared needles to do so.”
Media Outrageously Blames Pence for HIV Outbreak
At the time of the outbreak, the media blamed Pence both for failing to fund Planned Parenthood facilities and for resisting efforts to lift the ban on needle-exchange programs in his state, claiming both were necessary to help HIV sufferers. The Huffington Post reported in 2015, “The Scott County clinic and four other Planned Parenthood facilities in the state, all of which provided HIV testing and information, have shuttered since 2011, in large part due to funding cuts to the state’s public health infrastructure.” Arguing that Planned Parenthood was the only HIV testing center in the county, advocates argued Pence denied residents the ability to access medical treatment.
As for the needle-exchange policy, Robert Childs, executive director of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, argued, “People think that if you give someone a syringe, it means they’re going to go out and inject drugs, and if [you] don’t give them syringes, they won’t inject drugs.” Under pressure in March 2015, Pence allowed a 30-day exception to the needle-exchange ban in the most affected county, which the media portrayed as “slow action” to address the outbreak that Pence “enabled” through his public health policies.
Despite the Washington Post saying there is only one clinic in Austin, Indiana, a search shows dozens of medical providers in the city. The Huffington Post said the Planned Parenthood was the only HIV testing center in the city and since its closing in 2013 has falsely stated, “[T]here was no longer a place for the county’s 24,000 residents to get tested.”
In 2005, Planned Parenthood of Indiana received $3.3 million in grant and government contract funding. By 2014, this dropped to $1.9 million to support five statewide clinics. Any hospital can perform HIV testing, which is routine in emergency departments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provided a series of recommendations for screening patients in 2006.
HIV testing is so common, testing kits can be purchased online for privacy concerns. As with all health departments, including the Scott County Health Department, HIV testing is free.
High-Risk Behaviors Can Mean Terrible Consequences
In the left’s narrow view of HIV and drug use, insufficient HIV testing and needle-exchange programs caused the problem. The left doesn’t consider the risk behaviors relevant. NPR accidentally provided a potent reminder of this, reporting, “When news of the HIV infections broke, Kevin Polly was one of the few people in Austin willing to go on the record and say he was using Opana. Polly had contracted HIV, and at the time told a CBS reporter he had no plans to quit injecting the drug.”
The Opana manufacturer had added a pill coating to reduce abuse through slower release. Those who illegally injected the drug figured out how to remove the coating. This clearly isn’t just a problem of government-run public health programs.
The argument for needle-exchange programs is compelling but not absolute. When the ban was temporarily lifted, the outbreak was contained. Opposition to the program is equally valid, however, as needle-exchange does nothing to address illegal drug use; it only reduces the spread of blood-borne infections through one avenue of transmission.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, injection is the second-highest risk behavior for the spread of HIV, which can survive 42 days inside a syringe. Reducing infection is a positive goal, but many oppose taxpayer-funded programs enabling illegal drug use.
Clean needles may reduce HIV exposure through the injection itself, but as the CDC warns, “[P]eople who inject drugs can have other serious health problems, like skin infections and heart infections.” The CDC clearly states substance abuse increases the chance of dangerous sex practices, which also increase the chances of infection.
The left simply refuses to recognize that engaging in high-risk behaviors increases a person’s chances of contracting many serious diseases, and no amount of government-funded efforts will keep a person from choosing this path. HIV prevention begins with personal responsibility. HIV treatment requires a person to seek help, which is abundant and largely low-cost or free nationwide. Pence did not hand these people drugs, nor is he responsible for the consequences of their actions.
The Left Smears Pence for Political Gain
The Democratic Party is willing to exploit anything for political advantage, and they know they can emotionally manipulate LGBT activists through claiming Pence “ignored” an HIV outbreak in his state. The facts, however, show that HIV infection clustering due to intravenous drug use is not isolated. In 2018, a cluster of 74 cases were reported in Cabell County, West Virginia, in what Politico called an “unusually robust public health system.”
The report concluded, “But the fact that the cases have occurred despite the county’s surveillance and prevention is also worrisome.” Lawrence and Lowell, two Massachusetts cities, experienced a spike of 52 new HIV infections due to intravenous drug use in 2017. Similar clusters have been found in Kentucky, Ohio, and Seattle, Washington.
Using the hashtag “Pencedemic,” the LGBT activist group Human Rights Campaign tweeted, “1/ REMINDER: Mike Pence’s record in Indiana casts real doubt on his ability to be coronavirus czar. While serving as governor of Indiana, Pence exacerbated an HIV crisis by slow-walking possible solutions.” A major HIV information and advocacy source, POZ Magazine, also claimed, “Mike Pence’s Delayed Response to #HIV Outbreak in Indiana Had Grave Results — Many of the 215 injection-drug-related HIV infections could have been averted from a swifter response, according to researchers’ estimates.”
It seems the only reason the media, LGBT advocacy organizations, and Democratic leaders have targeted the Indiana outbreak is because Pence was governor when it happened. They needed a reason to attack him, so they exploited what would otherwise be considered a national concern in the opioid crisis.
It seems the left is willing to continue this exploitation to gain political advantage in what could be a significant challenge to public health. The media and LGBT advocacy organizations’ mindless hatred of President Trump and conservatives overshadows the real risk factors in the spread of HIV. There is no way to know if any action Pence may have taken would have curbed the infection rate at the time. To claim that Pence puts America at risk for coronavirus intentionally creates fear and paranoia, fueling the fires of hatred.