Trump has tapped Pence, who was criticised as governor for his handling of an HIV outbreak in Indiana, to handle coronavirus

U.S. President Trump delivers State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Reuters
  • Vice President Mike Pence has been appointed to spearhead the Trump administration’s response to coronavirus.
  • The CDC on Tuesday warned that it’s only a matter of time before the virus, which originated in China, spreads in the US.
  • Pence continues to face criticism over his handling of an HIV outbreak in rural Indiana while he was the state’s governor. For over two months, he refused to approve a clean needle exchange to help slow the crisis.
  • A 2016 study found the scale of the HIV outbreak in Indiana was avoidable.
  • The Trump administration has faced criticism for sending conflicting messages about coronavirus, as the president downplays the threat amid the CDC’s warnings.
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President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced he’s tapped Vice President Mike Pence to lead the administration’s approach to the spread of coronavirus.

“He’s got a certain talent for this,” Trump said during a press conference.

But Pence’s response to an HIV outbreak in Indiana while he was the state’s governor looms over this appointment and raises questions about his suitability for this role.

Health officials in late 2014 became aware of an HIV outbreak in Scott County, Indiana, a rural county with a population of roughly 24,000. Previously, HIV was extremely rare in the county, but cases skyrocketed among people who use needles to inject drugs. One hundred eighty one people who lived in or used drugs in Scott County tested positive for HIV between November 2014 and August 2015, according to a 2016 study, which found that the crisis was avoidable.

Ultimately, a cluster of 215 infections were attributed to the outbreak, Reuters reported in 2018.

Even after learning about the outbreak, Pence slow-rolled the initiation of a clean-needle exchange, which officials at every level were urging him to agree to. It was against the law to possess a syringe in Indiana, and Pence opposed needle exchanges because he believed they encouraged drug use.

Over two months after officials detected the outbreak, Pence issued an executive order to allow for the distribution of syringes in Scott County, per The New York Times.

“The governor wanted to make sure if we went this route it was absolutely necessary,” Pence’s health commissioner told the Times in 2016. “I believe he was praying on it up until the final decision.”

Subsequently, the number of new HIV cases in the country dropped.

After Trump announced Pence would spearhead the administration’s coronavirus response, his handling of the HIV outbreak in Indiana was widely discussed on social media.

The Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus thus far has faced bipartisan criticism in recent days. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday warned that the spread of coronavirus, a respiratory disease that originated in Wuhan, China, is inevitable in the US.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday said she spoke to Pence on the phone and expressed concerns about the administration’s response to coronavirus so far. “This is about resources – it’s also about personnel. It’s also about respect for science, for evidence-based decision making,” Pelosi said during a press conference. The House Speaker previously criticised Trump’s request of $US2.5 billion from Congress to address the virus as overdue and inadequate.

Trump has sought to downplay the threat of coronavirus to the US while focusing heavily on the economy as financial markets take a hit amid panic over the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, public health experts have warned that Trump’s history of lying undermines his credibility as the country braces for coronavirus, while expressing a lack of confidence in the US government’s preparedness.