The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgia lawmaker, wife of ex-HHS secretary, says her remarks about quarantining HIV patients were misunderstood

Vice President Pence, right, swears in Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) as new the health and human services secretary, as Price's wife, Betty, holds a Bible on Feb. 10 in Washington. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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A state lawmaker who has drawn criticism after asking about the legality of quarantining people with HIV has said her comments were misunderstood and intended to be “provocative” and “rhetorical” in a broader conversation about curtailing the virus.

Georgia State Rep. Betty Price (R) made the statement Tuesday, at a study committee meeting on barriers to adequate health care. Committee members had been discussing, she later said, why Georgia ranks second in the nation when it came to new HIV cases.

“What are we legally able to do? I don’t want to say the quarantine word, but I guess I just said it,” Price asked Pascale Wortley, the head of the Georgia Department of Public Health’s HIV Epidemiology Section, as seen in a video of the meeting.

Price, whose district includes parts of Atlanta’s northern suburbs, is a former anesthesiologist and has served on the boards of the medical associations of Atlanta and Georgia, according to her legislative biography. She is married to former U.S. health and human services secretary Tom Price.

“Is there an ability, since I would guess that public dollars are expended heavily in prophylaxis and treatment of this condition, so we have a public interest in curtailing the spread,” she continued. “Are there any methods, legally, that we could do that would curtail the spread?”

Wortley did not directly address Price’s question about quarantining people with HIV. She instead explained efforts by state health-care officials to help people newly diagnosed with HIV to identify sex partners, to link people with HIV to care and to locate people who are out of care.

“It seems to me it’s almost frightening the number of people who are living that are potentially carriers, well they are carriers, with the potential to spread, whereas in the past they died more readily and then at that point they are not posing a risk,” Price added. “So we’ve got a huge population posing a risk if they are not in treatment.”

Neither Price nor Wortley responded to requests for comment Friday. On Saturday, Price clarified in a written statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she did not support a quarantine of HIV patients.

“I made a provocative and rhetorical comment as part of a free-flowing conversation which has been taken completely out of context,” Price wrote. “I do, however, wish to light a fire under all of us with responsibility in the public health arena — a fire that will result in resolve and commitment to ensure that all of our fellow citizens with HIV will receive, and adhere to, a treatment regimen that will enhance their quality of life and protect the health of the public.”

The idea of quarantining people with HIV and AIDS is not new, and was seriously discussed at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

More than half of respondents in a 1985 Los Angeles Times poll supported isolating AIDS patients.

“There is this idea of building a wall against infection,” Harvard University medical historian Allan Brandt told NPR, adding that strong opposition curtailed any efforts to enact such measures.

In 1987, Jesse Helms, then a Republican senator for North Carolina, called for quarantining people who test positive for HIV. That same year, former education secretary William Bennett suggested that prisoners infected with HIV should be kept in custody even after serving their sentences if they threaten to spread the infection to the general population.

Online, news of Price’s comments were met with outrage.

In an interview with Stat News, Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said Price’s comments  were “incredibly disturbing” and show that HIV is still stigmatized.

“It’s very troubling to hear comments like that,” he said. “It shows the amount of work that still needs to happen to educate elected officials on the reality of the lives of people living with HIV. I’m hoping Rep. Price would be open to sitting down, meeting with folks, hearing how those comments sound, and recognizing that’s not the direction we need to go in.”

Georgia ranked fifth in the United States for the number of adults and adolescents infected with HIV in 2015, according to a fact sheet from the Georgia Department of Public Health. A total of 54,754 people were living with HIV at the end of 2015, with nearly two-thirds of those living in the Atlanta metro area.

Carlos del Rio, a co-director of the Emory Center for AIDS Research, told Stat News that he saw Price’s comments as “unfortunate” but “not mean-spirited.”

Dazon Dixon Diallo, the founder and executive director of SisterLove, a nonprofit organization focused on women’s AIDS and reproductive justice, told Project Q Atlanta that Price’s comments showed that there was a lot more educational work to be done.

“When we come into spaces like this and we hear questions around how legally far can we go to isolate people or even quarantine people, then it just lets you know that we have a real uphill battle,” Diallo said.

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