Georgia State Rep Betty Price - spouse of former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who recently left his role in Donald Trump's administration after taking a few too many taxpayer-funded charter flights - casually asked a state epidemiologist whether it would be more cost-effective to just force HIV-positive people into quarantine.
"And I don't want to say the quarantine word, but I guess I just said it," Price asked Georgia state Department of Public Health HIV epidemiology chief Dr. Pascale Wortley at a study committee meeting this week. "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," Price continued. "What would you advise or are there any methods legally that we could do that would curtail the spread?"
Not one to slow down, Price added, "It seems to me it's almost frightening, the number of people who are living that are potentially carriers. Well they are carriers, with the potential to spread, whereas in the past they died more readily and then at that point they are not posing a risk. So we've got a huge population posing a risk if they are not in treatment."
Wortley, who had just explained HIV treatments as well as routine medical care remain out of reach for many Georgians, responded that the state was already attempting to track the spread of the virus and get more people into care. The AJC reported Georgia has the second-highest rate of HIV infection in the US at 28.3 per 100,000 population in 2015, and just half are virally suppressed.
Aside from the obvious moral implications — Price was more or less suggesting rounding up the disproportionately LGBTQ HIV-positive population — there's also the fact that this awful solution would never work. Quarantines are only advised for diseases that can be easily identified, progress quickly and are contagious enough via transmission methods like casual physical contact or the air to pose a risk to the general public, none of which really apply to HIV.
Both of the Prices are physicians, and should presumably be aware of this.
Tom Price's selection as HHS secretary drew alarm from progressive groups, which pointed out his noxious record on gay rights is staunchly conservative, and that his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and limit coverage of reproductive health services could harm LGBTQ communities and reduce access to HIV treatment.
"We need to emphasise that in this day and age, quarantining is not a useful strategy to control HIV," Emory Center for AIDS Research co-director Dr. Carlos del Rio told STAT, adding he believed Price's intent was misinformed rather than malicious.
"We need to get public health [workers] to find people, get them into care, keep them in care, and keep them virally suppressed," he added. "If we can keep them virally suppressed, we can stop the epidemic."
"When we come into spaces like this and we hear questions around how legally far can we go to isolate people or even quarantine people, then it just lets you know that we have a real uphill battle," SisterLove executive director Dazon Dixon Diallo told Project Q Atlanta.
In a response released to the AJC, Price seemingly did not apologise and said her remarks were taken out of context:
I made a provocative and rhetorical comment as part of a free-flowing conversation which has been taken completely out of context. I do not support a quarantine in this public health challenge and dilemma of undertreated HIV patients. I do, however, wish to light a fire under all of us with responsibility in the public health arena - a fire that will result in resolve and commitment to ensure that all of our fellow citizens with HIV will receive, and adhere to, a treatment regimen that will enhance their quality of life and protect the health of the public.
Gizmodo has reached out to Price's office for comment, and we'll update this article if we hear back.