HIV positive William O’Kelly was arrested and charged with attempted second-degree assault with a deadly weapon because he allegedly spit on another man in a dispute. Yet when he was taken into custody, authorities held him for 24 hours without providing him access to his medications, partly because they couldn’t confirm he was HIV positive even though, in effect, he was arrested only because he was HIV positive.
The assault charge was later dropped by the Denver DA but the clumsy way O’Kelly’s medical needs were addressed in custody raises questions about the clarity and effectiveness of Sheriff’s department policy and practice.
“It was just a Catch 22. Why would I be lying about being HIV positive? I mean I’m being charged with spitting on someone while having HIV,” O’Kelly told the Colorado Independent.
“They arrested me at about two o’clock at my house,” he said. “That night, they wouldn’t give me my HIV meds. They said they could not confirm that I was HIV positive, even though I was charged with that stupid crime. So I received my medication the next night.” O’kelly was arrested on May 26 and said he finally received his medication the night of the 27th. He said medical staff told him they didn’t have the kind of medication he had been prescribed.
Captain Frank Gale, spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department, told the Independent that HIV is not addressed in the department’s best-practice policies. He said Sheriffs, in fact, are not responsible for providing for the special medical needs of detainees. Those responsibilities fall to medical staff contracted from Denver Health medical clinics. He said doctors and nurses make a decision first on whether inmates should be provided medication immediately or whether there is time for a background check. According to Gale, it rarely takes a full day before a patient undergoing a background check receives their medication.
O’Kelly said the medical staff couldn’t determine whether he was infected with the virus and eventually simply called his partner, Geoff Guth, to confirm that O’Kelly had HIV, after which time O’Kelly was given the meds, the so-called “tripple” cocktail.
Denver Health spokesperson Tony Encinias told the Colorado Independent that he was not allowed to disclose the details of Mr. O’Kelly’s case but he confirmed that Denver Health staff were responsible for testing inmates and providing medication.
“The bottom line is that whenever there are folks who request their medication, we work with inmates to make sure they get their proper regimen.”
Encinias didn’t say whether Denver Health follows specifically outlined procedures in cases of HIV.
“That’s about as much as I can tell you without speaking to this specific person,” he said.
Medical experts at Denver Health and National Jewish hospitals said the interruption for O’Kelly in taking his meds was not desirable but likely not harmful.
“Missing HIV medications for 24 hours on rare occasions is probably not harmful, although during the period of time that the patient is not on medication, it is possible, but unlikely, that a resistance mutation could evolve in the virus,” said Dr. Ken Lichtenstein, director of the HIV Clinical and Research Program at National Jewish Health. “If patients are off medications for longer periods of time, the chronic inflammation associated with viral resurgence can be harmful to the individual.”
Dr. William J. Burman, Medical Director of the Infectious Diseases clinic at Denver Public Health, agreed.
“Particularly with more recently approved medications that last in the blood stream for quite a while, probably taking 80 percent of a dose a week, which amounts to missing one day… most people taking even that level of the medication have complete viral suppression.”
Colorado court authorities are presently investigating whether O’Kelly’s HIV status was improperly disclosed by his probation officer. Fran Jamison, acting deputy chief at the Department of Adult Probation Department, is reportedly heading the investigation. Jon Sarché, public information coordinator for the Colorado State Court Administrator’s Office, said he couldn’t give a timeline on the investigation.