Law-enforcement officials say Salt Lake City is becoming known nationwide as a haven for prostitutes who can knowingly spread the AIDS virus without prosecution because the jails are too full.
And Salt Lake City/County health officials are worried about a link they see between AIDS and tuberculosis. Both diseases are deadly, but tuberculosis is more troublesome because it is spread through casual contact.Somewhere in the Salt Lake Valley, county health officials are trying to hold a homeless man who has a form of tuberculosis that resists all drug treatments. Anyone he coughs or breathes on could contract the deadly disease.
But the man, who they refuse to identify, doesn't want to be quarantined. In fact, officials have caught him in the past panhandling and eating at shelters for the homeless. Salt Lake City/County Health Director Dr. Harry Gibbons said the man was seen three days ago using his welfare check to buy alcohol.
Salt Lake City/County health officials want Salt Lake County to build a quarantine facility at the jail currently being built in South Salt Lake City. That way, when police arrest people with contagious diseases, they have a place to keep them.
They also are endorsing a bill that would put prostitutes who carry the deadly AIDS virus or other deadly diseases behind bars.
Health officials believe a recent revival of tuberculosis is connected with the AIDS epidemic. They cite statistics that show 18 percent of Utah tuberculosis patients have AIDS as well. They suspect most AIDS patients carried the tuberculosis virus in a dormant state for years until AIDS weakened their immune systems.
But the Health Department's stand is not universally popular. The proposed bill and the quarantine facility do not have the support of the Utah Department of Health's AIDS Advisory, who favor improved treatment strategies instead. And it has put the local health department at odds with AIDS support groups who believe jail time for prostitutes may be discriminatory.
"I think such legislation would be constitutionally suspect," said Michele Parish-Pixler, executive director of the Utah American Civil Liberties Union.
The concept of a quarantine center doesn't sit well with the founder of Utah's People With AIDS Coalition, either. David Sharpton said he thinks it will turn into "a witch hunt" for people with AIDS.
He thinks that unless the individual has a known history of prostitution, officials can't prove the person is out spreading the virus. He doesn't think the quarantine center would be effective.
Meanwhile, health officials are holding the homeless man in a trailer, but they aren't able to watch him all day. A county employee delivers a meal to him each day and makes sure the man still is there.
"Drug-resistant tuberculosis is, in our minds, more dangerous than AIDS," said John Inch Morgan, deputy director of the Health Department.
But AIDS also is a serious disease, and the two often are linked.
Prostitutes with AIDS still work Salt Lake City streets. Morgan said officials have identified seven of them, but there may be more.
In fact, law-enforcement officials say Salt Lake City has become a haven for prostitutes from around the United States who can practice their trade - and knowingly spread the deadly AIDS virus - without prosecution.
Sgt. Terry Orton of the Salt Lake Police vice squad said 145 prostitutes were arrested in Salt Lake City alone from May to July, in addition to 134 "Johns" or customers. Another 58 people were arrested for sex-related disorderly conduct.
"There are so many out there, we don't know who does and doesn't have AIDS," Orton told a Legislative committee recently. "Many who do say they don't care what happens to anyone else because they (the prostitutes) are going to die anyway."
The legislation health officials endorse calls for a mandatory AIDS test and counseling upon a first conviction for prostitution. A second conviction for a person testing positive would be upped from a Class A misdemeanor to a second-degree felony, carrying a one-to-15 year prison sentence.