Michelle Fiscus, Tennessee's top vaccine official until she was fired on Monday, condemned a new move by the state's health department severely limiting its vaccine outreach to teens.
The change, first reported by the Tennesseean, will stop all of the health department's vaccine events at schools and will halt all of their communication to teens about vaccines, including postcards notifying them about their second COVID-19 shots. The change, and Fiscus's termination, happened amid pressure from Republican state lawmakers, who have called the health department's vaccine outreach to adolescents an overreach that threatens parental authority.
The Tennessee health department "has been rolling over and appeasing these legislators instead of standing up for public health and the people of Tennessee,” Fiscus told BuzzFeed News. She suggested that Gov. Bill Lee and Lisa Piercey, the Tennessee Department of Health commissioner who reportedly authorized the change, capitulated because of their political ambitions. "Politics has conspired to create toxic leadership."
The state health department's change comes amid growing anxiety over a state law called the "Mature Minor Doctrine," which allows adolescents 14 and up to make medical decisions without parental consent. This could include getting COVID-19 vaccines, which have been approved for kids 12 and over. Republican lawmakers in the state accused the health department of "targeting" youth for vaccinations and then threatened to dismantle the agency to stop its outreach efforts.
But the new move by the state's health department affects outreach on all vaccines, not just those protecting children from COVID-19, severely threatening public health in the state. The agency had previously recommended vaccination against flu, measles, mumps, rubella, HPV, and more.
And the change comes as cases are surging in the state amid the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. Cases in Tennessee have gone up more than 400% in the last two weeks and deaths have increased by 9%. Only 38% of the state has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, making Tennessee one of the least vaccinated states in the US.
Fiscus was fired by the Tennessee Department of Health on Monday, allegedly over information that was distributed to medical providers about providing COVID-19 vaccines to adolescents. She later released a public statement saying she was scapegoated because of political pressure. "I am afraid for my state," her statement read.
“We have a legislature filled with people who are not scientists and not healthcare providers who have their own crazy ideas about vaccines," Fiscus said. "When they saw us trying to do our job of educating people, they saw that as undermining parental authority. They began saber-rattling about dissolving the Department of Health, in the middle of a pandemic, which is ludicrous, and the department’s leadership absolutely crumbled.”
In a statement, Tennessee Department of Health spokesperson Sarah Tanksley stressed that the agency still valued the importance of childhood immunizations, but was wary of maintaining the trust of parents in the state.
"TDH wants to remain a trustworthy source of information to help individuals, including parents, make these decisions," Tanskley said. "And being that trustworthy messenger means we are mindful of hesitancy and the intense national conversation that is affecting how many families evaluate vaccinations in general. We have in no way shuttered the immunizations for children program. We are simply mindful of how certain tactics could hurt that progress."
Last week, the CDC recommended that all schools resume in-person learning in the fall and take a leading role in promoting vaccination among eligible students, calling it "one of the most critical strategies to help schools safely resume full operations."
This story has been updated to include a statement from Tennessee Department of Health spokesperson Sarah Tanksley.