US: Washington State decriminalises HIV exposure and removes stigmatising language in state law

Failing to share HIV status downgraded from felony to misdemeanor in Washington

The Washington State Board of Health this week adopted new rules to decriminalize HIV exposure, remove stigmatizing language in state law and end legal discrimination against people living with HIV.

Previously, state law criminalized HIV exposure; a person living with HIV could be prosecuted for not disclosing their status to a sexual partner and could serve jail time. HIV is no longer in the criminal code in Washington state, and nondisclosure could result in a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

The board was tasked with rewriting the rules after legislation passed in 2020 directing them to work in consultation with state agencies and community stakeholders.

Dr. Bob Lutz, who serves on the State Board of Health, said the process involved consulting with local health jurisdictions, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Labor & Industries. Last October, the proposed revisions were opened for formal public comment, and after hearings and more meetings in late 2021, the board held a final hearing and vote Wednesday to adopt changes .

The updated state law will also include new language to reflect that it’s possible for a person to employ “practical means to prevent transmission,” such as modern HIV treatment that can eliminate the virus to the point of being undetectable, and prevention methods for not transmitting sexually transmitted infections, like condoms.

Dale Briese, an HIV advocate in Spokane and peer navigator, said the new rules are a step forward.

Briese, along with other advocates and community leaders, met with Board of Health staff several times in the past two years to get to the language in the rule presented to the board on Wednesday.

“I am comforted that these rules initiate for the first time the public health model for citizens that are in medical care, and are acting out of ‘good faith’ that they will have less potential legal ramifications,” Briese wrote in his prepared testimony.

Advocates who commented on the legislation also noted that there is still work to be done, especially to clarify how the law impacts community members living with HIV who have reached the point in their treatment where the virus is undetectable. It’s not clear in the new language whether these people would need to disclose their HIV status, despite the fact that they would be incapable of spreading it.

Even still, all three people who commented on the specific rule change applauded the efforts of the board and the state.

There were many more public comments during the hearing on the new rule, but they were primarily from people who thought the state was amending state law that pertains to quarantine orders, as well as people who wanted to comment on vaccine mandates for children.

Before the Board’s Wednesday meeting, misinformation spreading on social media led some people to believe that the board was considering mandatory quarantine “camps.” Board members clarified early during the hearing that their scope of work applied to the HIV-related language in the state’s public health law.

Since 2003, Washington state law has allowed public health officers to enforce quarantine orders if they are not voluntarily followed, and a superior court can be involved in this process. The board’s rulemaking on Wednesday did not change or alter the health officer’s ability to enforce quarantines, however. The board followed specific guidance from the Legislature, making changes only pertaining to how people living with HIV are treated by public health officials and other entities.

“Most counties have developed voluntary (quarantine centers), so people don’t infect their roommates or family,” Board Chairman Keith Grellner said on Wednesday.

“There are certainly lots of examples of those, but I am not aware of any mandatory quarantine or isolation center.”

Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, the chief science officer at the Department of Health, said it was ironic that the intent of the rule and legislation were to remove stigma and initiate the healing process after past inequities in the HIV community brought on by this law, but that many people had used the meeting as an opportunity to spread division instead.

“I feel bad that the misinformation distracted from the intent of this,” he said.

He added that he was proud of the department and board for working closely with the community impacted to bring about the changes.

By Arielle Dreher