Georgia lawmaker’s suggestion of HIV ‘quarantine’ sparks furor

Rep. Betty Price, R-Roswell, wife of former U. S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, raised questions about quarantining Georgians with HIV during a House committee meeting.

State Rep. Betty Price, working with a legislative committee studying access to healthcare, asked a state official this week if there was a legal way to quarantine people with HIV.

Price, R-Roswell, is a physician and the wife of Tom Price, who recently resigned as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. Her questions came during a presentation by a state epidemiologist, who told the committee that at least a third of Georgia's people with HIV are not getting care.

“And I don’t want to say the quarantine word, but I guess I just said it,” Price said. “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. What would you advise or are there any methods legally that we could do that would curtail the spread?”

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.”

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. Price’s statements were first reported by Project Q Atlanta.

The panel on which Price sits, the House Study Committee on Georgian’s Barriers to Access to Adequate Healthcare, is working to investigate and combat disparities in health care in Georgia. Different groups can have widely varying access to doctors, medicines and information — depending on their location, their economic status and other factors.

Price directed her questions to the director of Georgia’s HIV epidemiology section at the state Department of Public Health, Dr. Pascale Wortley. Wortley had just reported that large numbers of Georgians with HIV don’t get medical care for it, and larger numbers don’t get regular medical care.

That gap in care is “an important cause for ongoing transmission,” Wortley said. The numbers show it.

Georgia ranks among the heaviest-hit states in the nation. Georgia is second only to Louisiana in new cases, with 28.3 per 100,000 population as of 2015, Wortley said. Among Georgians who have HIV, just about half are virally suppressed, meaning that medicine has reduced the person's virus to undetectable levels.

Reese McCranie was among many gay rights advocates who spoke out about Price’s comments.

“I find her comments repugnant and a total disgrace,” said McCranie, a member of the Human Rights Campaign’s steering committee and a Democrat who is running for a seat on the Fulton County Commission. “They reveal her ignorance around HIV, its transmission, its treatment and the strategies to combat it.”

Wortley responded to Price by detailing Georgia’s existing efforts to track infection chains: by asking newly diagnosed people to list their sexual partners, and to choose whether to talk to the partner themselves or have a public health worker do it. She also mentioned the state’s hope to expand the program, and its desire to get more people into care.

The AJC sought comment from some of Price’s fellow legislators Friday but they did not have much to say. A spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston referred calls to Price. House Health Committee Chairwoman Sharon Cooper, who also chairs the study committee, was traveling this week and unable to comment, her assistant said.

Price did not return calls to her office and personal phones.

Senate Health and Human Services Chairwoman Renee Unterman, R-Buford, leads a parallel panel in the Senate on barriers to access to care. When contacted, Unterman said she had not heard of Price’s comments. “I don’t quite understand it to be honest with you,” she said.

Asked if Unterman had any interest in quarantining those with HIV, she simply said that she had never heard of the idea. “I mean I can understand with tuberculosis,” she said.

Beyond the moral questions that would surround a lifelong quarantine, quarantine for HIV isn’t an effective or practical idea in the United States, according to Nicholas Schiltz, an epidemiologist and biostatician at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

For that to work, the patients would have to be easily identifiable, the “attack rate” of the disease (how contagious it is through casual contact) would be high, the infected population would be small, and the incubation period would be short. “None of these conditions are true for HIV/AIDS,” Schiltz wrote.

Cuba has been successful in keeping AIDS in check. In the early years that included a quarantine, but the country, an authoritarian system, also implements massive HIV testing, condom distribution and universal medical checkups. It abandoned the quarantine years ago.