Opinion

Jaco: Prison for spreading a virus? Only for HIV, not COVID

Missouri has become America’s very own Third World, with COVID spreading rapidly thanks to everyday people refusing vaccines and political leadership yawning.

As overflow cases from outstate Missouri clog up St. Louis hospital ICUs, St. Louisans are thankful they’re not in rural Missouri.

The problem is that St. Louis is the rural Missouri of cities, with a COVID rate 4.8 times higher than Chicago, 4.5 times higher than Detroit and 8 times higher than Boston. Only 47 percent of the eligible population (12 and older) has been fully vaccinated in St. Louis County, while the city has an even more abysmal 40 percent vax rate.

Admittedly, that’s not as bad as the laughable 27 percent vaccination rate around Branson, or the breathtakingly awful 15 percent vax rate in Douglas County, in the south-central Missouri Ozarks. But in all of those cases, from the Baden neighborhood to Branson, the deadlier, more transmissible Delta variant of COVID is spreading for one reason: People are refusing to get COVID shots, despite their being free, and widely and easily available.

A hundred three years ago, as the Spanish Flu pandemic raged across America, St. Louis health director Dr. Max Sarkloff brought down the hammer. He closed businesses and sealed off entire neighborhoods. The Red Cross Ambulance Service was pressed into service to bring food into locked-down areas of the city. Anyone going outside without a mask could be arrested for disturbing the peace. 

So why can’t 21st-century Missourians be punished for knowingly spreading a deadly virus without regard for anyone else’s health during a pandemic?

Actually, they can. But only if the virus is HIV, the disease is AIDS, and the perpetrator is gay.

Under Missouri Revised Statutes 191.677 (c), enacted in 1988, anyone who is “purposely acting” to spread HIV is guilty of a felony. Between 1990 and 2019, 593 were arrested under the statute, with 318 who were convicted.

One of them is Michael Johnson. A former student and member of the wrestling team at Lindenwood University, Johnson was convicted under the law in 2015 and sentenced to 30 years in state prison. In 2017, an appeals court reduced his sentence to 10 years because of prosecutorial misconduct, and ordered a new trial. In 2019, St, Charles County prosecutors decided to plea out the case, avoid a new trial and release Johnson from prison.

Johnson, who’s Black and gay, spent five years in prison for allegedly spreading a deadly virus knowingly. He denies it, and says the six men who testified against him (four of whom were white) lied. The all-white St. Charles jury believed them. 

Since his release, Johnson has campaigned to change the HIV laws.

Two months ago, the Missouri Legislature finally changed the law, reducing the penalty from a Class A to a Class D felony, under which the maximum sentence is seven years, not 30. Lawmakers also made it apply to “serious non-airborne infectious or communicable diseases.”

The new law was passed, of course, during the ongoing pandemic. And by inserting the words “non-airborne” in it, COVID-denying anti-vax GOP lawmakers in Jefferson City made sure none of their constituents could be charged criminally for refusing to take precautions, refusing to be vaccinated, and making the conscious, deliberate choice to ignore public health and spread COVID during a pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans.

Right now, there’s no penalty, no sanction and no consequences for any Missourian who endangers the health of others in the pandemic, unless they work for a major health care organization such as BJC, SSM, or Mercy. They’ve mandated that all employees either be vaccinated, or lose their jobs. Otherwise, the COVID-denying unvaxed are free to spread both disinformation and the virus.

Why? The cult of Donald Trump, rage, and disinformation.

I was in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 28, 2020, when Trump spoke to a cheering crowd there and called COVID “the Democrat’s new hoax” and sneeringly said it was “no worse than the flu.” This was three weeks after Trump spoke by phone, on tape, to author Bob Woodard, and said “this is deadly stuff.” On March 19, he spoke to Woodard again, admitting that he was downplaying the deadly virus on purpose, even as he said “it’s more deadly than your strenuous flu. … It’s affecting not just old people, but young people, too. Lots of young people.”

Trump lied, 608,000 Americans died, and his faithful absorbed the gibberish as truth and tribal identity.

Data guru Matthew Holloway has tracked COVID in Missouri since the beginning. Writing on Facebook, Holloway, who lives in Joplin, said, “Here in SW Missouri … we’ve never given COVID-19 the amount of attention it warrants … we’re stuck in the denial stage, and it seems we aren’t in a hurry to progress along.”

Combine the mass psychosis familiar to anyone who’s studied cults with the Missouri GOP Ayn Rand disciples who think Somalia is a libertarian paradise because there’s no government and everybody has guns, and you have a perfect storm of denial and unwillingness to have the government act on any level against the pandemic.

Which is why I’m proposing that Missouri law 199.677 (c) be amended to remove the word “non-airborne” from the statute. Anyone who refuses to be vaxed, wear a mask, or keep their distance has made a conscious decision that “freedom” isn’t a guiding principle of a civilized society, but rather a 5-year old’s “you’re not the boss of me” tantrum. They’ve also deliberately decided to endanger other people during a pandemic.

They should be charged. And fined. And, if the case of Michael Johnson and hundreds of others is any guide, tossed in jail.                   

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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