With Pence in charge of U.S. COVID-19 response, critics look to his handling of 2015 HIV outbreak

President Donald Trump’s choice of Vice President Mike Pence to oversee the nation’s response to the new coronavirus threat is bringing renewed scrutiny to the former governor’s handling of an HIV outbreak in southern Indiana when he was governor.

Pence reluctantly agreed to authorize a needle exchange program in Scott County in March 2015 after the epidemic centered there saw the number of people infected with HIV skyrocket, with nearly 200 people eventually testing positive for the virus that year.

Despite his own misgivings — Pence worried about how the exchanges would affect “anti-drug policy” and had misgivings about providing clean needles to addicts — he initially issued an executive order allowing one in Scott County before later signing a law allowing the state government to approve them for counties on a case-by-case basis.

Greg Millett, director of public policy at amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, said Indiana’s HIV outbreak would have been “entirely preventable” if Pence had acted earlier in response to data that was available to Indiana public health officials and clearly showed an outbreak was imminent.

The outbreak primarily infected intravenous users of the painkiller Opana in an impoverished, rural area with few health resources. The needle exchange Pence finally approved for Scott County successfully curbed the epidemic’s spread by providing clean needles to IV drug users to reduce needle-sharing that spreads HIV, hepatitis C and other diseases.

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