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Ex-Tennessee health official: State backed off vaccine push

by Jonathan Mattise —

NASHVILLE – Tennessee health officials will not acknowledge that August is National Immunization Awareness Month per an order from the state’s health commissioner, emails show.

The order, obtained by NewsChannel 5, was given to Tennessee’s former top vaccination chief earlier this month just days before she was fired amid Republican outrage over her push to inoculate teenagers against COVID-19.

The firing of Dr. Michelle Fiscus sparked alarm among doctors, public health advocates and Democrats at Gov. Bill Lee’s administration hesitancy to promote the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as the administration’s recent actions to back off from promoting other vital vaccinations.

“August is National Immunization Awareness Month and we would typically do a news release, a Governor’s proclamation … ,” Dr. Michelle Fiscus wrote in a July 8 email. “Please let me know if we’ll be permitted to acknowledge the occasion.”

Dr. Tim Jones, chief medical officer of the Tennessee Department of Health, replied “Per the Commissioner, no outreach at all.”

Sarah Tanksley, a spokesperson for Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, said the agency had “in no way halted the immunizations for children program” and stressed that the state will continue to support vaccine outreach efforts.

Tanksley added the state is “mindful of hesitancy” surrounding vaccinations and pointed out the department intends to recognize National Immunization Awareness Month.

Last year, Lee signed a proclamation declaring August as Immunization Awareness Month, stating “Tennesseans are encouraged to get vaccines due or overdue administered according to CDC recommended immunization schedules.”

Fiscus served as medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the health department. She said the state’s elected leaders put politics over the health of children by firing her for her efforts to get more Tennesseans vaccinated.

She said the agency gave no reason for why she was being let go.

Given a choice of resigning or being fired, she chose termination. Fiscus then penned a blistering 1,200-word response saying she is ashamed of Tennessee’s leaders, afraid for her state, and “angry for the amazing people of the Tennessee Department of Health who have been mistreated by an uneducated public and leaders who have only their own interests in mind.”

Since then, the health department has acknowledged it has halted all outreach efforts around any kind of vaccines for children, not just COVID-19 ones. The Tennessean first confirmed the policy change.

Fiscus said Wednesday the policy change comes as an estimated 30,000 teens in Tennessee are behind on the vaccination schedule due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

In the day’s since Fiscus’ firing, local health officials in Nashville and Shelby County – encompassing Memphis – have been quick to point out that they won’t be changing their own vaccine advocacy or policies.

Lee, a Republican, has been silent on the firing. His office and the health department declined to comment, citing personnel matters.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to comment directly on Fiscus’ firing Wednesday but said President Joe Biden’s administration has been “clear that we stand against any effort that would politicize our country’s pandemic response and recovery from COVID-19.”

Psaki added that the federal government would keep working with partner states such as Tennessee to ensure “we are conveying accurately that the vast majority, 99.5 percent of people who are going to hospitals are not vaccinated.”

Only 38 percent of Tennesseans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, lagging behind much of the nation.

“I don’t think they realized how much of an advocate I am for public health and how intolerant of injustice I am,” Fiscus told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

During a June committee meeting, angry Republican lawmakers invoked Fiscus’ name over a letter she sent to medical providers who administer vaccines explaining the state’s legal mechanism letting them vaccinate minors as young as 14 without parental consent, called the “Mature Minor Doctrine.” The letter was in response to providers’ questions and didn’t contain new information.

Fiscus said the health department’s attorney provided the letter, based on a 1987 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling and that her job was to explain what is allowable.

Republican lawmakers also admonished the agency for its communications about the vaccine, including online posts. One graphic, featuring a photo of a smiling child with a Band-Aid on his arm, said, “Tennesseans 12+ are eligible for vaccines. Give COVID-19 vaccines a shot.”

During the hearing, Republican Rep. Scott Cepicky held a printout of a Facebook ad saying teens were eligible, calling the agency’s advocacy “reprehensible” and likening it to peer pressure.

Asked about the hearing, the governor last month said generally that the state will “continue to encourage folks to seek access – adults for their children, and adults for themselves to make the personal choice for vaccine.”

Two weeks after the hearing, the health department instructed county-level employees to stop vaccination events aimed at teens and to halt online outreach to them, The Tennessean previously reported, citing emails it obtained.

On Wednesday, Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Hendrell Remus called on Lee to reinstate Fiscus and to recommit the Tennessee Department of Health to carrying out its mission.

“… (Lee’s) latest action to fire Dr. Michelle Fiscus, his silence on reports that the Tennessee Department of Health has decided to halt all vaccine outreach to kids, and the issuance of an order to Tennessee Health officials to not acknowledge that August is National Immunization Awareness Month, set a dangerous new precedent,” said Hendrell in a released statement.

House Democratic Leader Karen Camper of Memphis said she was angry — not disappointed — by what is happening in the legislature and the administration regarding the state health department and vaccinations.

“To put our children at risk is unconscionable,” Kamper said in a distributed statement.  … I call on Gov. Lee and my Republican colleagues to stand with our health professionals— not threaten them. …

“Now is not the time for political retribution and the continued pushing of bad science: now is the time for leadership.”

(Associated Press writer Kimberlee Kruesi contributed to this report. This story also includes an account by the TSD newsrooom.)

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