Ex-Tennessee health official: State backed off vaccine push

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — 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.”

A spokesperson for Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

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

The proclamation prompted the health department to highlight the importance of vaccines, particularly on social media.

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 Monday 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.

“We have been unable to follow CDC guidance and unable to promote CDC guidance,” Fiscus told the Tennessee Holler.

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 said Wednesday President Joe Biden’s administration has been “crystal clear that we stand against any effort that would politicize our country’s pandemic response and recovery from COVID-19.” But she declined to comment directly about Fiscus’ firing.

“(We’re) going to continue to work with partners in states like Tennessee, and in states across the country to ensure that we are pushing back against misinformation, that we are conveying accurately that the vast majority, 99.5% of people who are going to hospitals are not vaccinated,” she said.

Only 38% 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. The attorney, she said, had said the letter had been “blessed by the governor’s office.” She said the doctrine was based on a 1987 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling and 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.

Associated Press writer Kimberlee Kruesi contributed to this report.