When President Trump announced that Vice President Pence would lead federal efforts against the spread of the coronavirus, he said Pence was the right person for the task because of his experience.
The announcement has cast light on Pence’s record as a lawmaker and his handling of a major public health crisis during his time as governor of Indiana. The worst HIV outbreak in the state’s history happened on his watch in 2015, which critics blamed on Pence’s belated response and his opposition to authorizing a needle-exchange program.
In 2011, as a member of Congress, he voted to cut funding for Planned Parenthood. Two years later, a Planned Parenthood clinic that had been the only HIV-testing center in Scott County, Ind., closed after public health spending cuts, HuffPost reported.
Two months passed from the start of the outbreak in 2015 before Pence declared a public state of emergency.
The spread of the disease was attributed to people injecting Opana, an addictive painkiller, with shared needles. But Pence didn’t agree with federal health experts that distributing clean needles was a good idea.
“I don’t believe effective anti-drug policy involves handing out drug paraphernalia,” he told the Indianapolis Star at the time. Despite assurances from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it is an effective way to halt the spread of infections and diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C, Pence said if state lawmakers tried to send him a bill for a needle-exchange program, he would veto it.
As cases spiked, Pence reportedly turned to prayer.
Trump's plan for the coronavirus so far:— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) February 27, 2020
-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
After 75 people were confirmed to be HIV-positive, Pence announced he would allow a 30-day needle exchange.
Public health officials weren’t the only ones to warn Pence about delaying action. State Rep. Ed Clere, a fellow Republican, also pushed Pence to approve a needle exchange.
“It was disappointing that it took so much effort to bring the governor on board,” Clere told the New York Times.
In 2018, researchers at Yale University found the epidemic could have been prevented if Pence and state officials had acted faster. The study received financial support from the federal government.
“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,” the paper’s senior author, Forrest W. Crawford, said in a statement at the time. Instead they cut funding for the last HIV testing provider in the county.”
The study used computer modeling to determine which actions could have prevented cases, one of the researchers on the study, Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves, told The Washington Post. Gonsalves said Indiana’s response was “a textbook case for how not to do it.”
“It was a total collapse of public health leadership and a dereliction of duty in Indiana,” he said. “They could have avoided this epidemic if science took the lead instead of ideology.”
Gonsalves tweeted Wednesday that Pence’s assignment overseeing coronavirus efforts “speaks to a lack of seriousness by the White House.”
Along with public- health experts, late night comedians also questioned Trump’s decision to appoint Pence. “Why is Mike Pence in charge?” ABC host Jimmy Kimmel asked incredulously. “What is his plan to stop the virus? Abstinence?”
At her weekly news conference at the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she spoke with Vice President Pence Thursday morning and conveyed to him her concern about him leading the Trump administration’s coronavirus response effort.
“This is about personnel. It's also about respect for science, for evidence-based decision-making,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) issued a statement Thursday in which they said the U.S. government “must do more to address the spread of the deadly coronavirus in a smart, strategic, and serious way."
“Any emergency funding supplemental the Congress approves must be entirely new funding — not stolen from other accounts,” they said.
Pence also downplayed the risk of smoking as late as 2000, Vox first reported; he wrote in an op-ed on his congressional website: “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.”
On Wednesday, Trump emphasized Pence would not be a coronavirus “czar” because “he is a part of the administration.”
Pence said he looked forward to leading the federal response to the coronavirus.
“As a former governor from the state where the first MERS case emerged in 2014,” he said, “I know full well the importance of presidential leadership, the importance of administration leadership, and the vital role of partnerships of state and local governments, and health authorities in responding to potential threats and dangerous infectious diseases.”
Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.