TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers

by Curtis Weathers —

Just when you think things couldn’t get any worst, this happens! 

Last week, amid pressure from Republican lawmakers, the Tennessee Department of Health fired Dr. Michelle Fiscus, medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs.  The firing came as a total surprise and without cause or explanation.

Dr. Fiscus responded with a blistering 1,200-word rejoinder in which she said how ashamed she was of Tennessee’s leaders.  

Fiscus accused legislators of using her as a scapegoat and that she was terminated to appease state lawmakers angry about the department’s efforts to vaccinate teenagers against coronavirus. 

According to Fiscus, the agency has been dialing back efforts to vaccinate teenagers since June.

They also made critical changes to its overall vaccination outreach initiatives by rolling back significantly the dissemination of vaccine information to and for minors, which was not limited to just COVID-19, but all vaccines.

To make matters worse, they are threatening to dissolve and reconstitute the entire Tennessee Department of Health in order to quell its vaccine marketing efforts to minors.  

State Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) blasted the firing of Fiscus, saying she was “sacrificed in favor of anti-vaccine ideology.” 

These actions have gotten the attention of the national media and the White House. As a result, Tennessee seems to have now become the poster child of the anti-vaccine movement in this country.  

But make no mistake about it, this kind of disruption will further hinder our state’s fight against the pandemic and negatively impact school openings in the coming weeks.   

Thankfully, both the Shelby County Health Department and Nashville’s Metro Health Department released statements last week, saying they would not follow state guidance and would continue promoting childhood vaccinations.  

Apparently, the goal of Republican lawmakers is to vaccinate as few of our citizens as possible.  

We seem to be competing with Mississippi and Alabama for the lowest vaccination rate in the country; they are both tied at 33 percent. Tennessee is not far behind at 38 percent. 

As of last week, the vaccination rate in Shelby County was only 35 percent.  

In recent weeks, the spread of COVID-19 and other variants in Shelby County has been getting worst, not better.

After months of declining infections, the average number of new cases per day has more than doubled in the past two weeks. In addition, the average positivity rate in the same period jumped from 2.2 percent to 5.4 percent.

Doctors say they are beginning to see more and more young people with severe illnesses. Health experts are concerned that not enough people are getting vaccinate and, as a result, more people will continue to get sick and die “unnecessarily.”

We need to sound the alarm.  

The political leadership in Nashville — legislature and governor’s office — puts our children’s health and safety at risk by sowing confusion and undermining the state’s vaccine rollout.  

All Tennessee schools are expected to return to in-person learning next month when the 2021-2022 school year begins.

The start of this school year, however, could be a train wreck waiting to happen when it comes to the COVID-19 virus and its Delta variant, which currently is the dominant virus variant. 

It feels as though we’re sailing into a “perfect storm.”

Many educators have yet to be fully vaccinated and will return to a much more relaxed COVID environment in their schools, possibly resulting in more unnecessary sickness and death.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, has called for universal masking in all schools. The academy points out that most school-age children are not yet eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and many schools are not planning to track the vaccination status of students, teachers and staff.  

The combination of new variants of the virus, the efforts of anti-vaxxers who want to sow doubt about the vaccine and a bunch of insane state Republican lawmakers who want to continue politicizing vaccine marketing and distribution give me tremendous cause for concern.  

I would encourage school leaders to be extra vigilant this year when preparing for school openings.

Strictly enforce pandemic guidelines, flush out your anti-vaxxers and make clear the messaging that will be communicated to students and families.  

Vaccines are the safest and most effective health interventions for fighting infectious diseases. Therefore, we should be encouraging our teenagers to get vaccinated. 

Teens who don’t get vaccinated are at a greater risk of hospitalization, death or long-term COVID-related complications.

There are people out there who oppose the use of vaccines to fight not just COVID-19 but any and all infectious diseases, and these people actively spread misinformation about their safety and efficacy.

This kind of conduct undermines school systems’ efforts to open and operate safely.  

So, to you Gov. Bill Lee and to you Republican state legislators, who choose to flex your political muscle by firing Dr. Fiscus (at this critical time) for no legitimate reason, you have gone too far.  

I am appalled at the anti-vaccine rhetoric being spun by conservative politicians here in Tennessee and across the nation. It is mind-boggling.  

They are putting their political agendas ahead of sound medical and scientific counseling and making what already is very difficult vaccine messaging even more challenging.

There are very ugly and dire consequences associated with such actions.  

Please, stop the insanity.  Help our children get vaccinated and our schools open safely.  

(Follow TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers on Twitter (@curtisweathers); email: [email protected].)