Piercey to face raft of childhood immunization questions

By: - June 16, 2021 5:01 am
A Department of Health and Human Services employee holds a COVID-19 vaccine record card Nov. 13, 2020, in Washington D.C. The cards will be sent out as part of vaccination kits from Operation Warp Speed, which is an effort by several U.S. government components and public partnerships to facilitate the development, manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)

A Department of Health and Human Services employee holds a COVID-19 vaccine record card Nov. 13, 2020, in Washington D.C. The cards will be sent out as part of vaccination kits from Operation Warp Speed, which is an effort by several U.S. government components and public partnerships to facilitate the development, manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)

The chairman of the House Government Operations Committee appears ready to grill Tennessee’s Health Department commissioner over childhood immunization policy, potentially to overturn the state’s mature minor doctrine.

Rep. John Ragan, an Oak Ridge Republican, sent a list of questions June 12 to the Department of Health requesting that Commissioner Lisa Piercey be prepared to answer them during a meeting set for Wednesday and to explain why if she is unable to explain or provide an answer.

Ragan’s questions focus on efficacy of all COVID-19 vaccinations in reducing the rate of infections, deaths and hospitalizations of all age groups, as well as the death rate of children from COVID-19, specifically for those with no previous underlying health condition, the forecast rate of improvement for children who are vaccinated and a breakout for those ages 12-18.

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

An email from Ragan also asks Piercey to be prepared to provide information comparing child death rates from COVID-19 to the three leading causes of child death listed by the Centers for Disease Control, as well as for multi-system inflammatory syndrome, in addition to rates for adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccinations and hospitalizations attributed to COVID-19 vaccinations.

Ragan could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But his questions could be a jumping off point to challenge the state’s mature minor doctrine. 

Besides answering questions on immunizations, Piercey is expected to make a presentation on Tennessee’s mature minor doctrine, a state law since 1987 that enables health-care providers to treat certain minors without parental consent.

It is based on the “rule of sevens.” Under the state law, children under 7 would not have the capacity to decide whether to take vaccinations and, thus, physicians would need parental consent. For those between 7 and 14, a rebuttable presumption exists that they don’t have the capacity to decide, so a physician usually needs parental consent. Between 14 and 18, young people have the capacity to decide, according to the law, and the physician may treat without parental consent unless it is clear the child is not capable of making the decision.

Uproar about the doctrine may have surfaced after a memo from Dr. Shelley Fiscus, who is in charge of immunology in the Department of Health, was sent to “vaccination partners” such as Walgreens and Kroger discussing emergency use authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for children 12 and older.

In a June 3 letter, Piercey and Education Commission Penny Schwinn wrote that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the emergency use of Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for children as young as 12. They expect other vaccines to be approved in the future.

“Schools operate under a stringent statutory standard regarding the provision of medical assistances to students,” their letter states. “More specifically, a school must receive written parental consent before administering medical care, regardless of the age of the student,” because of state law.

Roughly one-third of Tennesseans, about 2.2 million people are fully vaccinated for COVID-19, and children 12-16 are eligible for the vaccination. Though the state has not required any residents to get vaccinated, the department says on its website that research has shown COVID-19 vaccinations are safe and effective and help protect people from the disease.

State Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, will question the commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Health about whether minors of a certain age can make their own decisions about getting the COVID-19 vaccine.  

Yet one school of thought is that children don’t need a COVID-19 vaccination. 

In fact, Gov. Bill Lee recently said on a Fox News talk show for Republican governors that children don’t need to wear masks because they “don’t get sick” from COVID-19. He amended that statement somewhat during a press conference last week.

“We all know that children do not get severely ill from COVID. The statistics are clear. The science is clear. The risk is very low for severe illness for children,” Lee said, after noting the COVID-19 “health crisis” is now a “health situation” the state is managing.

Rep. Vincent Dixie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a member of the Government Operations Committee, said Tuesday that Ragan should avoid questioning the doctrine.

Rep. Vincent Dixie, photographed in the Cordell Hull Legislative Building in March 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Vincent Dixie, photographed in the Cordell Hull Legislative Building in March 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous because right now we have to have parental involvement when someone goes to get a driver’s license … because it’s a big step in their life. You have to have parental involvement if they want to get married under the age of 18,” Dixie said. “Why, all of a sudden, do you believe a child is mature enough to make a decision (about vaccinations) at 16, 17 years of age. This is nonsense. Parents have the life experience to make a decision for their child. I think they’re sticking their nose somewhere it doesn’t belong.”

Dixie contends science shows that vaccines are “very helpful” for ages 12 and above in averting COVID-19, though he added questions exist for children 11 and under. 

For the economy to continue moving forward and life returning to normal, a combination of herd immunity and the vaccination are necessary, Dixie said. He called any potential challenge of the mature minor doctrine an attempt at “misdirection” by coming up with an “imaginary cause” about vaccinations.

The Nashville Democrat also said he believes Gov. Lee is “misinformed” about the effect of COVID-19 on young people.

Piercey responded to Ragan’s email by saying the memo issued by Fiscus was in response to requests from vaccines providers seeking guidance on vaccination of minors and to provide restrictions.

“While most adolescents seeking medical care do so while accompanied by a parent or legal guardian, that is not always the case,” the letter states. “Several physicians reached out wanting to understand the boundaries when working with adolescents who request vaccination or other medical treatment in the absence of a parent.”

The letter points out that even though the COVID-19 vaccines receives emergency use authorization, they are not experimental and have been authorized by the FDA after extensive study and data, including use by children.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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