After being tapped by President Donald Trump Wednesday to lead the U.S. response to the threat of coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence’s handling of an HIV outbreak while he was governor of Indiana made its way onto social media.
Pence’s slow response to the quick spread of HIV in Scott County, Indiana in 2015 led to the infection of over 200 people. When the idea of a needle exchange to slow the infection rate of the illness was presented to Pence he responded by saying, “I’m going to go home and pray on it.”
Even when Pence signed legislation for a temporary needle exchange program to be set up in the county two months after the HIV outbreak had been detected, he told reporters at a March 2015 news conference, “I will tell you, I do not support needle exchange as antidrug policy, but this is a public health emergency.”
Trump introduced Pence in his new role as being “very good on health care. When Mike was governor of Indiana, 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 to change their systems.”
“He’s really very expert at the field,” Trump added.
But Pence’s appointment drew criticism from many observers, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders who called Trump’s decision “disgusting.”
“Trump’s plan for the coronavirus so far:” Sanders tweeted, “Cut winter heating assistance for the poor; Have VP Pence, who wanted to “pray away” HIV epidemic, oversee the response; Let ex-pharma lobbyist Alex Azar refuse to guarantee affordable vaccines to all. Disgusting.”
“Here’s the kicker about Mike Pence enabling the worst HIV outbreak in the history of Indiana,” tweeted Human Rights Campaign rapid response press secretary Charlotte Clymer, “it was all because he wanted to shut down Planned Parenthood, which were leading HIV testing centers in the state. Mike Pence’s distrust of women led to an HIV outbreak. No joke.”
“As Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence was so slow to start a clean needle exchange for IV drug abusers that by the time he finally did it, up to 215 people were infected with HIV in a population of just 24,000 people in Scott County,” wrote physician Eugene Gu. “Trump naming him Coronavirus Czar is ludicrous.”
Co-creator of The Daily Show Lizz Winstead tweeted, “Trump put Mike Pence in charge of cornonavirus response. Pence said prayer should be how Indiana should control its HIV out break in Indiana when he was governor, and also believes you can reverse your abortion. #coronavirus”
“I have so much faith in the medical and scientific genius of Mike Pence,” tweeted musician John Lurie, “I am going into every building in NYC and licking the floor buttons on every elevator. Something I hear is fun to do but never got around to doing.”
Pence’s views on health care have proven controversial in the past. As Indiana governor in March 2016, Pence signed a bill banning abortion if the fetus was determined to be abnormal. At the time, Pence released a statement calling the bill a “comprehensive pro-life measure that affirms the value of all human life.”
But the head of Planned Parenthood of Indiana Betty Cockrum disagreed with Pence’s assessment.
“It is clear the governor is more comfortable practicing medicine without a license that behaving [like] a responsible lawyer,” Cockrum said in a statement, “as he picks and chooses which constitutional rights are appropriate.”