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Tennessee has gone “anti-vaccine,” state vaccine chief says after being fired


Grown women comfort a masked child with a rolled up sleeve.
Enlarge / US first lady Jill Biden (L) comforts Adriana Lyttle, 12, as she receives her vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccination site at Ole Smoky Distillery in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Tennessee state government on Monday fired its top vaccination official, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who says that state leaders have “bought into the anti-vaccine misinformation campaign.”

In a fiery statement published late Monday by The Tennessean, Fiscus warns that as the delta variant continues to spread in the undervaccinated state, more Tennesseans “will continue to become sick and die from this vaccine-preventable disease because they choose to listen to the nonsense spread by ignorant people.”

Fiscus is just the latest public health official to quit or lose their position amid the devastating pandemic, many aspects of which have become tragically politicized. Fiscus wrote that, as the now-former medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health, she is the 25th immunization director to leave their position amid the pandemic. With only 64 territorial immunization directors in the country, her firing brings the nationwide turnover in immunization directors to nearly 40 percent during the health crisis.

The National Association of County and City Health Officials told CNN in May that more than 250 public health officials had left their positions since the pandemic began. Many, like Fiscus, left against their will, while others left amid intense backlash to public health efforts, CNN noted.

Fiscus noted that reality in her statement, blasting the treatment her colleagues have endured as they have worked tirelessly to make life-saving vaccines available to Tennesseans. Rather than being honored or commended, the officials have been “disparaged, demeaned, accused, and sometimes vilified” by science-denying politicians and members of the public, Fiscus wrote.

Regarding her own experience, Fiscus claims her firing came about in the aftermath of a May 10 memo she sent to medical providers administering vaccines. The memo, she said, included copy-and-pasted language sent to her from the Tennessee Department of Health’s general counsel regarding Tennessee’s Mature Minor Doctrine. The doctrine came out of Tennessee Supreme Court ruling in 1987’s Cardwell v. Bechtol, which allows healthcare providers to provide medical care—such as immunizations—to adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18 without parental consent.

“Reprehensible”

Fiscus sent the memo the same day that the US Food and Drug Administration authorized the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15. She said the note was merely an “informational memo” sent in response to questions she had received from medical providers about the decades-old doctrine. She noted that the memo contained only language that was approved by the departments’ lawyers and was said to be “blessed by the governor’s office.” Moreover, it was only “regarding the guardrails set 34 years ago by the Tennessee Supreme Court around providing care to minors.”

But lawmakers alleged that the memo was “a bit of a prodding or encouraging to vaccinate children without parental consent,” Fiscus quoted them as saying. In a June 16 hearing before the state’s Government Operations Committee, lawmakers accused the health department of “targeting” youth and called their actions “reprehensible,” she wrote. One lawmaker allegedly called for the “dissolving and reconstitution” of the health department.

In a response to requests for comment on Fiscus’ termination, the health department has said it cannot comment on personnel matters.

To date, Tennessee has recorded around 871,000 COVID-19 cases, and 12,608 people have lost their lives—a death rate of about 185 per 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 38 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. The highly transmissible delta variant is spreading fast in the Volunteer State, with rough estimates suggesting that the variant is making up 59 percent of cases in the state. The seven-day average number of daily new cases has increased 404 percent over the last 14 days, according to data tracking by The New York Times.

Fiscus fears that things will only get worse with regard to COVID-19. She also warned that anti-public-health rhetoric amid the pandemic will spill over to other infectious disease prevention efforts. She wrote in her statement:

[T]he leadership of the Tennessee Department of Health has reacted to the sabre rattling from the Government Operations Committee by halting ALL vaccination outreach for children. Not just COVID-19 vaccine outreach for teens, but ALL communications around vaccines of any kind. No back-to-school messaging to the more than 30,000 parents who did not get their children measles vaccines last year due to the pandemic. No messaging around human papilloma virus vaccine to the residents of the state with one of the highest HPV cancer rates in the country. No observation of National Immunization Awareness Month in August. No reminders to the parents of teens who are late in receiving their second COVID-19 vaccine. THIS is a failure of public health to protect the people of Tennessee and THAT is what is “reprehensible.”



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