ATLANTA — A Georgia state lawmaker — the wife of former Trump health secretary Tom Price — is drawing condemnation for suggesting that people with HIV might be quarantined to curb the spread of the infectious disease.
Republican state Rep. Betty Price, a former anesthesiologist who represents people living in the northern Atlanta area, asked in a hearing this week “what are we legally able to do” to limit the spread of HIV throughout the state.
“I don’t want to say the quarantine word — but I guess I just said it,” Price said to Dr. Pascale Wortley, director of the Georgia Department of Public Health’s HIV epidemiology section. “Is there an ability, since I would guess that public dollars are expended heavily in prophylaxis and treatment of this condition, so we have a public interest in curtailing the spread. … Are there any methods legally that we could do that would curtail the spread?”
Her remarks came Tuesday morning during a Georgia House of Representative study committee meeting about barriers to access to health care in the state, and are captured in video of the hearing. The remarks were first reported by Project Q Atlanta, a local website serving the city’s gay community.
Georgia was home to nearly 50,000 people diagnosed with HIV in 2014, and had the second highest rate of new diagnoses among all states the following year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wortley’s presentation noted that gay black men in metro Atlanta have by far the highest rates of HIV diagnoses in Georgia. AIDS researchers have compared the severity of Atlanta’s epidemic to that of some nations in Africa.
“It’s almost frightening the number of people who are living that are … carriers with the potential to spread,” Price said during the hearing. “Whereas in the past, they died more readily, and then at that point, they’re not posing a risk. So we’ve got a huge population posing a risk if they’re not in treatment.”
Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, called Price’s comments “incredibly disturbing” and evidence of the stigma that still exists around HIV.
“It’s very troubling to hear comments like that,” he said. “It shows the amount of work that still needs to happen to educate elected officials on the reality of the lives of people living with HIV. I’m hoping Rep. Price would be open to sitting down, meeting with folks, hearing how those comments sound, and recognizing that’s not the direction we need to go in.”
He noted that Price has in the past supported the full legalization of syringe exchanges throughout the state — an intervention that public health experts say would curb the spread of HIV.
In Tuesday’s exchange Wortley did not directly respond to Price’s question regarding whether the state could legally quarantine HIV patients. Instead, the epidemiologist called for the expansion of public health programs that identify untreated Georgians with HIV in order to help those people get proper care.
Dr. Carlos del Rio, co-director for the Emory Center for AIDS Research, told STAT that he thinks Price’s comments were “unfortunate” but ultimately “not mean-spirited.” He believes the gaffe can serve as a moment to teach best public health practices in addressing the HIV and AIDS crisis.
“We need to emphasize that in this day and age, quarantining is not a useful strategy to control HIV,” he said. “We need to get public health [workers] to find people, get them into care, keep them in care, and keep them virally suppressed. If we can keep them virally suppressed, we can stop the epidemic.”
On Friday evening, Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, called upon Price to apologize to those with HIV for her “harmful” remarks. In a statement, the head of one of the nation’s leading gay rights advocacy groups said the lawmaker’s comments flew “in the face of that progress, and of basic decency.”
“This language coming from anyone is totally unacceptable,” Ellis said in her statement, “but coming from a medical doctor and a Georgia State Representative it is reprehensible.”
Rep. Price did not respond to STAT’s request for further comment.