For some mysterious reason, Donald Trump did not put Jared Kushner in charge of coronavirus response, but rather Mike Pence. And what an issue to elevate Pence on, since he has repeatedly shown himself to be hostile to public health and medicine and science.
Pence’s most notorious public health disaster was an HIV outbreak in Indiana while he was governor, which was made much worse by his policies and failure to act in a science-based way. During Pence’s first year as governor, public health spending cuts contributed to the closure of the only HIV testing center in Scott County. Two years later, when an HIV outbreak began in that area, Pence sat on his hands while loudly rejecting science-based policy to combat the outbreak.
“I don’t believe effective anti-drug policy involves handing out drug paraphernalia,” Pence said, rejecting the idea of a needle exchange program to combat an HIV outbreak driven by needle sharing. Pence may not believe it, but public health experts know that clean needle exchange is an important tool to prevent the spread of HIV among intravenous drug users. Pence did eventually give in and allow needle exchange programs in Indiana, but not until hundreds of people had been infected.
A study on the Indiana outbreak pointed a finger squarely at Pence (and his predecessor). “Our findings suggest that with earlier action the actual number of infections recorded in Scott County—215—might have been brought down to fewer than 56, if the state had acted in 2013, or to fewer than 10 infections, if they had responded to the HCV outbreak in 2010-2011,” said one of the study’s authors, Yale statistician Forrest Crawford. “Instead they cut funding for the last HIV testing provider in the county.” Pence became governor in 2013.
That one Scott County HIV testing center that closed, by the way, was a Planned Parenthood clinic—and as a member of Congress, Pence had also voted in 2011 to defund Planned Parenthood. Pence’s war on Planned Parenthood doesn’t just affect HIV testing, it affects testing for other sexually transmitted infections and cancer and measures to prevent all of the above. But hey, Mike Pence also doesn't believe condoms are effective against STIs. Literally, he said in 2002, “Frankly, condoms are a very, very poor protection against sexually transmitted diseases.”
Pence’s opposition to science-based public health doesn’t stop with things sexual or even involving illegal drug use. In the year 2000, decades after the dangers of smoking were widely known, Pence offered what he called a “reality check”: “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn't kill. In fact, 2 out of every three smokers does not die from a smoking related illness and 9 out of ten smokers do not contract lung cancer.”
So this is the guy who’s supposed to save us all from coronavirus. Scary, scary times. And as a bonus: