Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner joined public officials and service providers the morning of June 20 as they kicked off a daylong working session laying out the logistics of the state's Getting to Zero initiative.
The goal for that initiative, announced in late 2017, is the elimination of new HIV infections in Illinois by the year 2030. Elimination would be signified by reaching what stakeholders called "functional zero," which is about 100 or fewer new infections each year, and is the point at which the disease could not sustain itself.
During opening remarks, Rauner spoke about PrEP ( pre-exposure prophylaxis ) and the need for expanded mental health services in the state. The governor noted that the state is the sixth nationwide in HIV infections, and ninth in the nation in number of people with full-blown AIDS.
"We can do much better than that, and we will do better than that," Rauner said, noting that he was fully committed to the goals of Getting to Zero.
Illinois Department of Public Health HIV/AIDS Chief Eduardo Alvarado reiterated the commitments Rauner spoke of, adding that, "There is no one who is going to be denied access to PrEP based on inability to pay."
Alvarado further spoke of the how Treatment as Prevention ( TasP ) strategies would factor into the initiative; TasP interventions aim to reduce the viral load of HIV-positive persons to undetectable levels. A challenge, Alvarado added, would be determining a "humanistic approach" that does not perpetuate pre-existing stigmas against persons with HIV/AIDS.
Chicago Department of Public Health ( CDPH ) officials also spoke at the event, including Commissioner Julie Morita and Deputy Commissioner Dave Kern of the HIV/STI Bureau. Kern acknowledged the difficulties that loomed as providers and advocates advanced into a relatively unprecedented project.
"Now is a righteous time for us," Kern said. "…Morally, we are obligated to put these tools to use."
After the governor left, one audience member questioned how accountable officials would be towards these commitments, noting that millions in approved HIV/AIDS funding was never spent. AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) CEO and President John Peller said that a letter would be drafted and sent to Rauner outlining commitments he had made for the project in the years ahead.
Rauner faces an aggressive challenge from Democrat J.B. Pritzker in the 2018 election. Pritzker spokesman Jordan Abudayyeh told Windy City Times that, "Bruce Rauner's 736-day budget crisis devastated health clinics, slashing the number of HIV tests performed and, even after state legislators passed a budget and appropriated funding for HIV prevention, Rauner unilaterally refused to spend $10 million of it. J.B. supports the Getting to Zero initiative, and unlike Rauner's empty promises, J.B. will pass budgets that reflect his support."
Among those also speaking at the June 20 session were researcher Greg Millett, who co-wrote President Barack Obama's National HIV/AIDS Strategy, and emcee Sanford Gaylord of the Department of Health and Human Services.