On Wednesday, President Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to tackle the coronavirus crisis that is now spanning multiple countries. In a press conference, Trump stressed how the vice president plans to spearhead the initiative to deal with the spreading virus in the U.S. "Mike will be working with the professionals, the doctors and everybody else that's working," Trump said. "The team is brilliant."
But, public health experts are up in arms given the former Indiana governor’s problematic past enabling an HIV outbreak. After the severe results of the Indiana HIV crisis, which occurred during his tenure, the question now remains, is Mike Pence the right person to lead us away from the potential pandemic?
Although Trump said that Pence has "a certain talent for this" after appointing him to tackle coronavirus, Pence's history of handling public health crises are now on blast. In November 2014, officials spotted a cluster of HIV and hepatitis C in rural areas, one of which was in Pence’s state in Indiana. It was the largest outbreak in the state's history, and most cases were linked to shared needles used to inject an opioid called Opana. A wave of infections in Indiana's Scott County in January of the following year caused for serious concern.
Public health officials recommended a needle exchange program to reduce the number of HIV infections, but this was illegal due to a state law and Pence's strong opposition. Pence did not declare the overwhelming outbreak a public health emergency for months, leaving it to spread further until he ultimately was forced to approve a limited needle exchange program.
Pence’s avoidance of developing epidemics do not just stop at HIV — he also has a legacy of homophobia as an elected official, opposing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, and also standing against transgender bathroom bills for students. In the past, his approach to policies like these are rooted in Christianity, particularly weaponizing religion against the LGBTQ+ community. Given the legacy Pence has left Indiana with, his appointment to tackle yet another national health issue is deeply concerning.
On Thursday, the CDC confirmed a case of coronavirus in Solano County, California that could be its first “community driven” case of “unknown origin,” meaning the person didn’t contract the virus from traveling out of the country. The patient was transferred to the UC Davis Medical Center from another Northern California hospital on February 19, but four days went by before the CDC requested to test the patient for the virus.
The same morning, Trump gave a press briefing with contradicting information from the Centers for Disease Control regarding coronavirus. He doesn’t think an outbreak is "inevitable" when officials from the CDC have admitted the virus can come, and is actively coming, to the country. Pence, along with the rest of the Trump administration followed close behind, deeming the risk of an outbreak low while also preparing for a national emergency.
Right now, there are 15 people in the U.S. with confirmed case of COVID-19, in addition to 45 cases quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship from Wuhan, China where the virus originated. Four people have since died from the virus on the cruise ship. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, who serves as chair of the White House coronavirus task force, wasn’t initially briefed on Trump’s move to appoint Pence for the job, though he later called it a “genius” decision.
As to whether the coronavirus is deemed a pandemic or not, it’s still unclear. What we know is that Pence's history with public health crises makes him a dangerous leader in the battle against coronavirus, potentially creating a greater and lengthier problem than Americans ever anticipated.