Tennessee officials fired the state’s top immunization official, who was under scrutiny by Republican lawmakers across the state over his department’s outreach efforts to vaccinate teens against Covid-19.
Dr Michelle Fiscus, a pediatrician, was fired Monday as medical director of vaccine preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health.
In a statement to the Tennessean, Fiscus said she was worried about her condition.
“It was my job to provide evidence-based education and access to vaccines so Tennesseans could protect themselves against COVID-19,” Fiscus wrote. “I have now been fired for doing just that. “
Department of Health spokeswoman Sarah Tanksley said the agency would not comment on the dismissal.
Fiscus said tension with GOP lawmakers escalated when she released a public document on Tennessee’s “mature minor doctrine,” a 1987 state Supreme Court decision that states that Tennesseans between the ages of 14 and 18 can be treated “without parental consent, unless the doctor thinks the minor is not mature enough to make their own health care decisions.”
“Within days, lawmakers reached out to TDH to ask questions about the note, with some interpreting it as an attempt to undermine parental authority,” Fiscus said, adding that his conduct had been described as “reprehensible” by one. Tennessee legislator.
“This member then called for the” dissolution and reconstitution “of the Ministry of Health in the midst of a pandemic where one in 542 Tennessee died from Covid-19 under his surveillance and less than 38% of Tennessee were vaccinated Fiscus wrote.
On Monday, data from states and the federal government showed 38% of Tennessians were fully vaccinated against Covid-19, lagging behind much of the country.
“I was told that I should have been more ‘politically aware’ and that I ‘pushed the bear’ when I sent a note to medical providers clarifying a Tennessee Supreme Court decision dating from 34 years. I am a doctor who was, until today, responsible for protecting the people of Tennessee, including their children, from preventable diseases like Covid-19, ”Fiscus wrote.
In his statement, Fiscus alleged that the health department responded to the GOP outcry by “halting ALL vaccination campaigns for children.”
“Not just Covid-19 vaccine awareness for adolescents, but ALL communication around vaccines of any kind,” Fiscus wrote.
The Tennessean reported Tuesday that all adolescent vaccination campaigns, for all diseases, would be halted, according to emails and an internal report with state health department officials on Friday and Monday.
The change came two weeks after a June legislative hearing in which Republican lawmakers berated the agency for how it communicated about the vaccine, including through online posts. A digital graphic, which had a photo of a smiling child with a bandage on his arm, said, “Tennessee residents 12+ are eligible for vaccines. Give COVID-19 vaccines a chance. “
During the hearing, Republican Representative Scott Cepicky held up a print of a Facebook ad saying teens were eligible, and called the agency’s plea “reprehensible” and likened it to pressure. peers.
In an email to NBC News, Bill Christian, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, did not comment on reports that the state had halted all vaccination campaigns among minors, but said the department “Wanted to remain a reliable source of information to help individuals, including parents, make these decisions,” Christian wrote.
He added that an “intense national conversation” affects the number of families who assess immunizations in general.
“We are just aware of how certain tactics could hinder this progress,” Christian wrote.
Fiscus says the health department attorney provided her with the letter she shared with medical providers about the mature minor doctrine. The lawyer said the letter was “blessed by the governor’s office”.
At a hearing in June, Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said she was only aware of eight times this year the doctrine has been invoked, and three of them were for her own children, who received vaccines while at work.
Lee Savio Beers, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, called the termination of Fiscus “the most recent example of a disturbing trend to politicize public health expertise.”
The AAP is “concerned” by the report of the cancellation of the vaccination campaign among minors.
“Actions like this only increase the likelihood that we will see further outbreaks of these diseases even as we continue to fight Covid-19,” Beers said.
In a statement, senators from the Democratic state of Tennessee condemned Fiscus’ dismissal.
“Well folks, this is just plain insane,” said Jeff Yarbro, state Senate Minority Leader.
“The political dismissal of Dr. Fiscus is not just an embarrassment. It is unwise when cases and hospitalizations increase and 62% (of Tennessiens) are not vaccinated. “