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Mike Pence responds to critics of his HIV outbreak mismanagement: ‘I’m proud of the work’

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence joins Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally in Westfield, Ind., Tuesday, July 12, 2016.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence joins Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally in Westfield, Ind., Tuesday, July 12, 2016.Photo: AP Photo/Michael Conroy

With fears that a massive outbreak of the coronavirus looming, Vice President Mike Pence has been put in charge of the country’s official response to the potential epidemic.

With the announcement came concerns that Pence was not equipped to manage the outbreak, and cited as evidence was his previous experience with an HIV outbreak in 2015 while he served as Governor of Indiana. Yesterday, Pence issued a response to the critics at a press conference alongside President Donald Trump.

Related: Elizabeth Warren was asked who’d be her Mike Pence: “I already have a dog”

Andrew Feinberg, Breakfast Media’s White House Correspondent, asked Trump (while Pence shook his head in disapproval in the background), “what guarantee can you give Americans, that political considerations and ideological issues will play no role in your government’s response to this virus?”

Trump responds “quickly” that Pence “has done a phenomenal job on healthcare – one of the best, if not the best, in the country” before allowing the Vice President to respond.

Pence focused on the first confirmed MERS disease, which came in Indiana in 2014, and explained that that’s how he learned about “the extraordinary capabilities of [the] CDC” and “the invaluable role that local health officials play in dealing with the spread of infectious diseases.”

Actually talking about the 2015 outbreak, Pence said that his team “immediately deployed health resources” but blamed the incident on the “very small town” the outbreak originated from, and on the people that were “sharing needles for intravenous drug use…and the state of Indiana did not allow for providing needle exchange [programs].”

Pence claims, however, that after the CDC made a recommendation, he made it possible for the needle exchange program to happen for 30 days after declaring a medical emergency.

With that in mind, Pence said that he’s “proud of the work that we did in the state of Indiana, and I hope to continue to bring all of the best minds together to deal with this issue.” Trump returned to the podium to also say that Pence gave a “great answer” and is “doing a great job.”

This mirrored what he said about the subject in a Fox News interview earlier this week, except Pence claimed at that time that he worked the outbreak from “a law enforcement standpoint” and said that Indiana changed the law to allow for needle sharing because “of my actions.”

Neither’s answers on Saturday actually addressed Feinberg’s question about concerns of any “political considerations or ideological issues,” and they did not issue a guarantee to not be part of Pence’s management of the country’s health task force.

The “small town” in which the breakout occurred was Scott County, Indiana, where the estimated population was over 23,000 as of 2018 – and the only clinic that offered resources to combat the spread of HIV through sex or drug use, was forced to close in 2011 due to Pence’s budget cuts. After the increase in HIV diagnoses was noted first in November 2014, it took Pence almost six more months to issue his emergency order to allow needle exchange programs, which only applied to five counties in the state and did not permanently reverse the ban.

After the 30 days, several of those counties went back to preventing needle exchange programs. Such programs “are operating in only nine of Indiana’s 92 counties”, according to a Salon report from two weeks ago. While they are currently legalized on a temporary basis, the state requires the exchanges to be “authorized by either a county’s executive body or a municipality’s legislative body, and then be renewed at least every two years.”

Nearly 200 people were diagnosed over the outbreak, based on numbers in August 2015. A Yale University study concluded in 2018 that more “prompt action could have dramatically reduced the seriousness” of the outbreak.

Politicians and people who witnessed Pence’s management in Indiana firsthand also pushed back on his retelling of events. Out Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg – who served as the mayor of nearby South Bend, Indiana starting in 2015 – told CNN in an interview with Don Lemon that the then-governor “was dragged kicking and screaming into that.”

“I’ve been to the needle exchange that he reluctantly authorized…had he acted earlier, I believe that the worst parts of that HIV epidemic could have been avoided,” Buttigieg said.

“In actuality, Mike Pence failed Hoosiers, keeping his head in the sand and denying evidence-based science while failing to deliver the swift and strong response Indiana needed,” Human Rights Campaign spokesperson Lucas Acosta said in a statement. He said Pence’s account of events in “patently false.”

Based on the evidence, Factcheck.org ranked Pence’s claims categorically false, saying he “spun the facts” in his Fox News interview.

Huffington Post timeline originally published in 2016 also notes that Pence “slashed” state health spending and had a “dangerously wrong” understanding of needle exchange programs.”

In reference to the current ban on travel to China, where the virus is believed to have begun spreading, reports note that Trump also said that “there were no plans” to lift the restrictions.

The current amount of confirmed coronavirus diagnoses in the United States is at 15. Pence expects that “many more cases” are going to be diagnosed, but says the risk level for everyday people is still ‘low’.

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