Republicans Force Tennessee Health Department to Stop Vaccine Outreach to Youth

The Tennessee health department, under pressure from Republican state lawmakers, is stopping all vaccine outreach to youth in the state and has been ordered to not publicize National Immunization Awareness Month in August.

According to documents obtained by the Tennessean, the staff at the health department have been ordered to remove the department’s logo from vaccine guidance targeted at adolescents and stop holding COVID-19 vaccine events on school campuses. Notably, the order to halt vaccine outreach to youths isn’t just for the COVID vaccine — it’s for all vaccines.

The health department will also no longer send postcards to teenagers reminding them to get the second dose of the COVID vaccine to avoid having the reminders “potentially interpreted as solicitation to minors,” the document distributed among health department employees says.

NewsChannel 5 also found that the health department officials were ordered last week not to even acknowledge that August is National Immunization Awareness Month — a campaign backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health organizations to boost vaccination efforts for all diseases among people of all ages.

Michelle Fiscus, the head of the health department’s vaccine outreach who was fired on Monday as part of the Republican pushback against vaccines, sent an email last week to the department’s chief medical officer asking him if they could do their normal publicity for National Immunization Awareness Month. They typically do a news release, governor’s proclamation and send communications to local health departments, Fiscus wrote in her email.

“[N]o outreach at all,” the chief medical officer Tim Jones said, attributing the decision to Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey.

Piercey was also reportedly behind the decision to halt vaccine outreach to kids.

The Tennessee health department’s moves come as Republicans across the country and in the state have massively politicized vaccinations. Conservatives in Tennessee have put the health department in their crosshairs, calling the department “reprehensible,” accusing it of “peer pressuring” students into being vaccinated and even threatening to dissolve the entire health department and reconstituting it, presumably with people more amenable to their dangerous agenda.

Fiscus, in a scathing letter following her termination, wrote that she was fired for doing her job to provide information and education on vaccines. “Each of us should be waking up every morning with one question on our minds: ‘What can I do to protect the people of Tennessee against COVID-19?’. Instead, our leaders are putting barriers in place to ensure the people of Tennessee remain at-risk, even with the delta variant bearing down upon us.”

“I was told that I should have been more ‘politically aware’ and that I ‘poked the bear,’” wrote Fiscus in a memo she sent in the spring clarifying vaccine guidance for kids.

Though Republican state Gov. Bill Lee covertly got his COVID shot in March, GOP lawmakers in the state have been on a tirade against the vaccine. Conservative, white citizens of the state, in turn, are hesitant to accept the vaccine, according to health department polling. Meanwhile, in April, Governor Lee joined other Republicans across the country in pushing back against mandating vaccine records.

Fiscus expressed frustration over the politicization of the vaccine. “I have been terminated for doing my job because some of our politicians have bought into the anti-vaccine misinformation campaign rather than taking the time to speak with the medical experts,” Fiscus continued. “I am afraid for my state.”

Health experts and Democrats in the state have expressed concern over Fiscus’s firing. “A well-respected member of the public health community was sacrificed in favor of anti-vaccine ideology,” state Sen. Raumesh Akbari told NPR.

Tennessee has been lagging behind the rest of the country in vaccination rates. While nationally, 48 percent of the country has been fully vaccinated and 56 percent of people have received at least one shot, only 38 percent of the state has been fully vaccinated, and 43 percent have received at least one dose.

The state’s health department has estimated that, at the current pace, the state won’t reach 50 percent of its population fully vaccinated until March of next year. Meanwhile, as the Delta variant surges through the state, the state’s COVID case rate has risen a whopping 429 percent over the past two weeks, far higher than the national average of 109 percent.