Saying police officers need to know if suspects have exposed them to AIDS, an advisory committee Tuesday backed a plan to allow HIV testing of certain inmates but questioned how the results would be kept confidential.
The AIDS Advisory Committee, an eight-member panel appointed by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, also expressed concern about the type of counseling that would accompany HIV testing, possible discrimination against inmates and when testing would be allowed.
"The reaction I've gotten from a few people is fear," said Ronald Halleran, a health and physical-education instructor at Moorpark College and a member of the committee.
"And I don't think (the proposal) is anything to be afraid of, but I think it would be prudent of the supervisors to reassure people this isn't the beginning of a witch hunt," he said.
Under a state law that expired in July, county health officials were permitted to test prisoners for the human immunodeficiency virus if a police officer or jail employee was exposed to a suspect's blood or other bodily fluids.
Because the state Legislature has not renewed the law, Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury has asked the supervisors for authority to continue testing inmates and arrestees if an officer or another inmate has been put at risk.
But civil rights groups and some AIDS activists opposed the state law that allowed testing, saying it opened the door to discrimination toward minorities and mandatory testing of the public.
Neil Demers-Grey, director of the Unity Pride Coalition and a member of the county's HIV/AIDS Task Force, questioned whether test results would be kept confidential and if they would lead to abuse in County Jail. A few words emphasizing the importance of confidentiality, he said, will not be enough to protect inmates from discrimination.
"They should give them all the tools of education and let them make the choice. That's the point of civil liberty," he said. "They're taking away the decision these people have."
The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to take up the issue again next Tuesday.
Martina Rippey, a committee member who tracks statistics on AIDS cases for Ventura County, compared the testing of certain jail inmates to the testing of hospital patients.
A new state law allows hospitals to require patients to submit to an HIV test if a health-care worker has been exposed to that patient's bodily fluids. However, hospitals may not perform such a test on an unconscious patient.
"We're not doing anything that hasn't been done already," Rippey said. "We're just changing how it is to be implemented."
But Rippey acknowledged that the proposal leaves many loopholes. For example, she said, an inmate cannot require a police officer to undergo HIV testing if he or she has been exposed to the officer's blood.
County Public Health Officer Gary Feldman, who did not attend the meeting, has performed as many as 20 HIV tests on Ventura County prisoners during the past two years. All were negative.
Patricia Navarro, an advisory committee member appointed by Supervisor Judy Mikels, said she is concerned about who will have access to the results of inmates' tests.
"Say there was a blood exchange, and the inmate's test comes up positive. But the officer down the line is found to be negative," she said. "What happens to that information? Does that stay in the inmate's file?"
Committee members said they hope to address those concerns in part by revising the proposal to emphasize confidentiality before a final version is presented to the supervisors.