After Trump appoints Pence to oversee coronavirus response, initial reports don’t include how he enabled Indiana HIV outbreak


Citation Gage Skidmore / Creative Commons

President Donald Trump has announced that Vice President Mike Pence would oversee the coronavirus response.

While there are many troubling aspects of the administration's response to coronavirus thus far, some outlets neglected to mention that Pence’s policies led to an HIV outbreak in Indiana.

It started with Pence pushing to defund Planned Parenthood. Erin Schumaker reported for Huffpost in 2016:

Pence first laid the groundwork for Indiana’s HIV outbreak as a congressman back in 2011, when the House passed his amendment to defund Planned Parenthood. Then in 2013, Pence’s first year as governor of Indiana, Scott County’s one Planned Parenthood closed in the wake of public health spending cuts. Since that particular Planned Parenthood was also the county’s only HIV testing center, there was no longer a place for the county’s 24,000 residents to get tested.

Nearly 20 percent of Scott County residents live below the poverty line. Injection drug use there is a major problem, increasing the risk of HIV outbreak.

Fast-forward to 2015. Local health officials began to report HIV cases linked to intravenous prescription opioid use in Scott County. Scott County residents were sharing needles to inject their opioids, and nobody was getting tested.

The situation quickly spiraled out of control. At the height of the outbreak, 20 new cases of HIV were being diagnosed each week, reaching a total of nearly 200 cases by the time the outbreak was finally under control.

Pence made the problem worse, Schumaker reports, by refusing for months to authorize a needle exchange program. After being urged by federal, state and local officials, Pence reportedly told a sheriff that he would pray on the matter, before allowing clean syringes to be distributed. Further research from the Yale School of Public Health showed that the number could have been substantially lower if Pence had acted sooner.

While documenting Trump’s appointment of Pence, many mainstream outlets did not include this information: CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the AP all did not mention it. Others, like Politico, Buzzfeed, and The Verge, did mention it.

The New York Times later added a mention, but framed it as something being pushed by Democrats:

The Democratic National Committee immediately pointed out that as governor of Indiana, Mr. Pence was blamed for aggravating a severe AIDS outbreak among intravenous drug users in a rural Indiana county when he opposed calls for a clean needle exchange program on the grounds it would encourage more drug use.

Compare that to what the Associated Press later added:

During his time as Indiana’s governor, Pence faced criticism for his response to a public health crisis in the southern part of the state.

In 2015, Scott County saw the number of people infected with HIV skyrocket, with nearly 200 people testing positive for the virus in a span of months. Indiana law at the time prohibited needle exchanges, exacerbating the outbreak, which primarily infected intravenous users of the painkiller Opana.

Pence had long opposed needle exchanges but was eventually persuaded to issue an executive order allowing one in Scott County. Despite his own misgivings — Pence said he didn’t support the exchanges as an “anti-drug policy” — he signed a law allowing the state government to approve them on a case-by-case basis.

While Pence generally has a low profile, he’s influenced health care repeatedly:

Behind the scenes, Pence has developed his own sphere of influence in an agency lower on Trump’s radar: Health and Human Services. It’s also the agency with the ability to fulfill the policy goal most closely associated with Pence over his nearly 20 year career in electoral politics: de-funding Planned Parenthood.

Numerous top leaders of the department — including Secretary Alex Azar, Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Medicaid/Medicare chief Seema Verma — have ties to Pence and Indiana. Other senior officials include Pence's former legislative director from his days as governor and former domestic policy adviser at the White House.

Given Pence’s record in Indiana, his allies in HHS, and Pence’s general far-right approach, media outlets should be far more skeptical about what Pence could try to do while leading such an effort against coronavirus. 

Thus far, we’re not seeing much of that skepticism.