Hartmann: Missouri Is Quick to Criminalize Infectious Disease — Except for COVID-19

Missouri is one of the states with criminal penalties for spreading infectious diseases, but new language in the law carves out a notable exception.
Missouri is one of the states with criminal penalties for spreading infectious diseases, but new language in the law carves out a notable exception. CAROLINE MARTINS/ PEXELS

If it's a major felony in Missouri to spread a virus called HIV, why is it a "right" to spread a virus called COVID-19?

Just wondering.

Perhaps you didn't know it, but Missouri has been a national leader in the past few decades in criminalizing the spread of HIV and hepatitis. For a state seldom regarded for trendsetting in much of anything besides throwing kids off health care, that's nothing to sneeze at.

Unless you have COVID-19, that is, in which case you can sneeze all you want, anywhere, on anyone you want. After all, as the Republican anti-mask rhetoric goes, it's a "personal health choice" to ignore public-health rules regarding the spread of the coronavirus, even if one has it.

It's too early to tell how many people became gravely ill or died in Missouri as victims of others having exercised their right to spread the infectious disease known as COVID-19. But it's not too early to know what happened to people accused of spreading another one: HIV.

A study was published in February 2020 by the Williams Institute at UCLA titled "The Criminalization of HIV and Hepatitis B and C in Missouri: An Analysis of Enforcement Data From 1990 to 2019."

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The study is referenced on a page of the CDC website regarding HIV and STD criminalization laws, where one can also learn that Missouri is among 35 states criminalizing the spread of certain viruses, especially of the sexually transmitted variety. (Illinois is one of just thirteen states with no criminal statutes at all on the subject.)

As the Williams Institute found, Missouri is not just any old state when it comes to cracking down on virus spread. Here's the scorecard:

"In Missouri, 209 people have been arrested for the following three HIV crimes in 263 separate incidents. This includes 107 people who have been convicted for these crimes. Over 90% of the people who have been arrested (191/209 people) or convicted (97/107 people) for an HIV crime in Missouri have been convicted of the crime of recklessly exposing another person to HIV through sex, sharing needles, biting, or other conduct. On average, they received unsuspended sentences of confinement of 7.5 years."

And how does that stack up against some other states?

"Of the four states that the Williams Institute has analyzed (Missouri, Georgia, Florida, and California), Missouri has the most enforcement of its HIV-specific laws. When using the most comparable data, Missouri has one arrest for an HIV crime for every 60 people living with HIV (PLWH) currently living in the state, compared to one arrest for every 370 PLWH currently living in Florida and one arrest for every 2,000 PLWH currently living in California."

But perhaps the most telling observation in the study was that Missouri has been deadly serious about the spread of deadly disease when it comes to HIV. So much so that beginning in 1988 — at the height of the AIDS epidemic — the state created a new class of crime for it.

"There is evidence that these HIV crimes are bringing people into the criminal justice system who otherwise would not be there. One out of six people with an HIV incident (17.2%) had no other criminal records in Missouri. For over one in four (28.7%), their HIV incident was their first contact with Missouri criminal justice system."

And to the surprise of no one, justice hasn't been colorblind, according to the study: "Black men are the most disproportionately impacted by both HIV disease and the enforcement of HIV criminal laws in Missouri. While Black men make up 5.5% of the state's population, they are 35% of PLWH in the state. They make up over half of those with an HIV incident (50.2%) or conviction (54.2%). Put differently, there has been one arrest of a Black man for an HIV crime in Missouri for every 43 Black men currently living with HIV in the state today."

Also, for those in the local area thinking St. Louis isn't appreciated for its leadership in the state, the Williams Institute reported this:

"HIV crimes appear to be disproportionately enforced in the Saint Louis HIV Care Region, and, in particular, in St. Louis City and St. Louis counties. This is not just because there are more people living with HIV in this area. While the St. Louis HIV Care region has 48.3% of PLWH in Missouri, it has 61.0% of all HIV criminal incidents. This is in contrast to the Kansas City HIV Care region, which has 29.6% of all PLWH in the state, but only 10.8% of HIV incidents."

There is one comment in the study which is a little questionable: "Further research is needed to explore why enforcement rates differ so greatly by county in Missouri, and why there is disproportionate enforcement on the basis of race and gender."

Thanks, but no further research is necessary.

OK. So now do you want the good news, such that it is? The CDC notes that since 2014, nine states "have modernized or repealed their HIV laws," and Missouri is one of those states.

Yes, nasty old RsMO 191.677 has been repealed and the reference to HIV has been stricken from the law. It has been replaced with a kinder, gentler RsMO 191.677.

Here's how it now reads:

"For purposes of this section, the term 'serious infectious or communicable disease' means a nonairborne disease spread from person to person that is fatal or causes disabling long-term consequences in the absence of lifelong treatment and management."

Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Did you catch the definition? Let me repeat the three important new words: "A NONAIRBORNE DISEASE." Yes, the emphasis was added by me.

And there was also this new language, regarding what constitutes spreading disease:

"[To] act in a reckless manner by exposing another person to such serious infectious or communicable disease through an activity that creates a substantial risk of disease transmission as determined by competent medical or epidemiological evidence."

Allow me to add "AS DETERMINED BY COMPETENT MEDICAL OR EPIDEMIOLOGICAL EVIDENCE" to my words of emphasis. You know, like that "fake news" about masks reducing the risk of COVID-19 spread?

It's nice to know that the anti-science Republicans in Jefferson City acknowledge that "competent medical ... evidence" exists. It's too bad they don't think it applies to actual medical and public-health experts and the pandemic.

It turns out the new bill regarding HIV was regarded as a victory by reasonable legislators (especially Democrats) who celebrated the fact that spreading HIV, while still a criminal act, is no longer regarded as murder in Missouri.

Somehow, though, everybody missed the big news: In the middle of a pandemic that has killed 15,500 Missourians and counting, the General Assembly and Governor Mike "Dang Mask" Parson went out of their way to grant a special exemption to those who might kill people by spreading COVID-19.

Because it's their "right" to make that personal health-care choice. Of course. What do you think COVID-19 is?


Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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