Mike Pence, Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr
President Donald Trump has tapped Vice President Mike Pence to lead the U.S. response to the global outbreak of coronavirus and ensure that the United States is prepared to deal with contingencies if infections rise to epidemic-level proportions.
Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, President Trump sought to assuage the country that his administration was on top of this crucial public health issue, saying that the risk to Americans is “very low.”
“I don’t think it’s inevitable,” Trump said of the specter of coronavirus taking hold in the United States. “It probably will. It possibly will. It could be at a very small level or it could be at a larger level. Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared.”
However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning Americans to prepare for disruptions in their normal lives and the fact that the virus, which is believed to have originated in China’s Hubei province, will eventually begin spreading among segments of the U.S. population.
Just minutes after the president’s news conference, the CDC announced a confirmed case of coronavirus in California is someone who reportedly “did not have relevant history or exposure to another known patient” infected with the virus, reports CBS News.
On Thursday, Pence announced that he was installing a czar-like figure underneath him to assist the administration in responding to any widespread outbreak.
Ambassador Debbi Birx, who serves as the government’s leader for combatting HIV/AIDS globally, will fill that role and will directly report to Pence.
Birx will also serve on a White House task force dealing with coronavirus, which is led by Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and includes other administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow — who has been criticized for previously claiming during an interview with CNBC that the administration had “contained” the threat coronavirus poses to the United States, reports Politico.
But President Trump has been criticized by politicians, media, and LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS activists for naming Pence, whose record on public health threats has previously been called into question.
As governor of Indiana, Pence oversaw and failed to adequately respond to, a massive spike in HIV infections, which was exacerbated by the opioid epidemic and the use of intravenous drugs like heroin, particularly in communities in the southern part of the state.
Chief among the criticisms of Pence are accusations that he waged an ideological war in which he prioritized defunding health care providers like Planned Parenthood — one of the few organizations offering HIV testing in rural Indiana, which exacerbated the epidemic.
Critics also contend that after the initial HIV outbreak, public health experts from around the country advised lifting the state’s ban on clean needle exchange programs to help prevent the spread of the virus — an approach that has reduced intravenous transmission in other places.
But, they say, Pence resisted, saying, he would “go home and pray on it” when deciding whether to lift the ban, according to The Hill.
See also: Mike Pence’s new chief of staff blamed “repugnant” gays for the spread of HIV/AIDS
Pence eventually signed emergency legislation from state lawmakers allowing for a needle exchange program, two months after the outbreak was first detected. But according to lawmakers familiar with the bill, Pence had to be “dragged kicking and screaming” to sign the bill into law.
Additionally, the legislation provided no additional funding that could be used by counties where HIV rates had begun rising, which the vice president’s critics say hampered local communities’ response even once the ban on needle exchanges was lifted.
The Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ rights group that has clashed with the Trump administration and Pence in particular over the years, pointed to a series of articles detailing Pence’s response to the HIV epidemic and why his appointment to lead the response to the coronavirus epidemic should be concerning to Americans.
Among those articles was one from Politico in 2016 quoting Gregorio Millett, the director of public policy at amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, who called the spread of HIV in Indiana following the initial outbreak “entirely preventable.”
According to Millett, Indiana taxpayers could have been saved millions of dollars for treating those affected by the HIV outbreak if effective prevention policies were already in place.”
Related: Mike Pence’s Problematic Politics
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the frontrunner for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, blasted the Trump administration on Twitter, writing:
“Trump’s plan for the coronavirus so far: 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.”
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) also criticized Pence for past comments he made that fly in the face of scientific and medical understandings, such as claiming that smoking doesn’t lead to cancer, asserting in 2002 that condoms provide “very, very poor protection” against sexually transmitted diseases, his alleged support of conversion therapy to change LGBTQ people’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and his skepticism about the science related to climate change.
“Mike Pence is for conversion therapy. Mike Pence said smoking didn’t cause cancer. Mike Pence doesn’t believe climate science. Mike Pence questioned whether or not condoms worked,” Schatz tweeted.
Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves told The Washington Post that Indiana’s response to the HIV epidemic 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 has since tweeted that the choice of Pence to oversee the administration’s response to the threat of coronavirus “speaks to a lack of seriousness by the White House.”
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