Republican lawmakers threaten to dissolve Health Department over child vaccines

By: - June 17, 2021 5:00 am
Members of the Tennessee General Assembly on the floor of the House of Representatives. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Members of the Tennessee General Assembly on the floor of the House of Representatives. (Photo: John Partipilo)

GOP legislators came close Wednesday to dumping the Tennessee Department of Health after accusing it of targeting minors for mass vaccinations without parental consent.

Instead, the Government Operations Committee ordered Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey to soften the state’s efforts to vaccinate children, mainly by bringing parents into the fold, and report back in July.

Republican lawmakers repeatedly pointed toward a picture of a teenager on the state’s website displaying a bandage on her shoulder after having a vaccine. The wording above says Tennesseans 12-16 are eligible to get a shot, evidence the state is pushing vaccines on children, legislators said.

Piercey repeatedly told members of the panel the state is giving Tennesseans the choice to have vaccinations. But to no avail.

Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, told Piercey, “It looks like there is a mission here, an agenda here to have children vaccinated with or without parental consent.”

Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Health (Photo: Tennessee Department of Health)
Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Health (Photo: Tennessee Department of Health)

Under no circumstances is the department encouraging children to seek out vaccination without parental consent.

– Dr. Lisa Piercey, Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Health. Only 10 children unaccompanied by parents have gotten COVID-19 shots, three of whom were Piercey's children.

Football coaches, band directors and drama teachers should not pressure students to get vaccinations or face not being able to participate, said Roberts, who claimed he had evidence schools are pushing teens to get the vaccine.

Piercey responded by saying, “Under no circumstance is the department encouraging children to seek out vaccination without parental consent.”

The commissioner explained the circumstances in which children might get vaccinations without parental consent under the state’s Mature Minor Doctrine would be rare, for instance, when parents are drug abusers and incapable of taking care of their children.

Fewer than 10 children have gone to health departments without parents, and three of those were her children, Piercey said. 

“I think there is a sense that we are hiding in dark alleys and whispering to kids, hey, come get vaccinated. We’re not doing that. We’re not encouraging that. It is an allowance, and we do believe that vaccination is the right thing to do for children, and so we don’t want to prohibit that, if that’s something they want to do,” Piercey said.

Asked Wednesday if Gov. Bill Lee is standing behind Commissioner Piercey and the Department of Health, spokeswoman Casey Black said, “The governor has been clear in his public comments that parents should be the authority on decisions about their child’s health.”

Piercey declined to comment as she left Wednesday’s meeting, saying she was late for an administration meeting. Department of Health spokesman Bill Christian said all questions needed to be sent to him by email.

The uproar stems, in part, from a memo by Dr. Shelley Fiscus, head of immunology in the department, to “vaccination partners” discussing emergency use authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for children 12 and under.

Piercey and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn also wrote a letter June 3 stating the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the emergency use of Pfizer-BionTench COVID-19 vaccine for children as young as 12. But they noted in the letter that schools work under a “stringent standard” and must receive written parental consent before administering medical care.

Despite those types of assurances, Republican legislators grilled Piercey for more than an hour, even after she explained that COVID-19 cases have plummeted to 278 statewide and that only eight pediatric deaths have been reported, a mortality rate of .56% per 100,000 children.

“I don’t want to say it’s over. But we have had tremendous success in battling it right now,” Piercey said.

She noted natural immunity through contracting and getting over the illness as well as acquired immunity through vaccination have combined to quell the virus. Piercey pointed out, however, that vaccinations likely have longer-lasting effects than natural immunity.

Only about 37 to 39% of Tennesseans have had both shots, but Sen. Mark Body, R-Lebanon, was incredulous the Tennessee Department of Health would encourage kids as young as 14 to take the COVID-19 shot.  

Sen. Janice Bowling, a Tullahoma Republican, was one of the first to blast Piercey, accusing the department of misusing the Mature Minor Doctrine, which is based on case law, not state law passed by the Legislature. 

It says children under 7 would not be able to make their own health-care decisions while for those between 7 and 14, a rebuttable presumption exists that they don’t have the capacity to decide about health care without parental consent. Between 14 and 18, young people have the capacity to decide, according to the doctrine, and a physician may treat without parental consent unless it is clear the child is not capable of making the decision.

Bowling said it was “very disconcerting” to see the memo from Fiscus and pointed out large numbers of people in Tennessee have made the personal decision not to have the vaccination. 

Piercey acknowledged Wednesday that only about 37 to 39% of Tennesseans have had both shots, even though the vaccine is widely available on a daily basis.

“I am encouraging the Department of Health to back off the misunderstanding and misapplication of the doctrine,” Bowling said.

Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, was also incredulous that the state is encouraging children as young as 12 to get vaccinated even though 60% of the populace has chosen not to receive the shots.

“I’m asking this vaccination, this one that hasn’t even been fully examined and we don’t even know what the long-term effects are, that the majority of Tennesseans have said no to, but the Health Department of Tennessee says we should let 14-year-olds, if they choose, have this vaccination,” Pody said.

Rep. Scott Cepicky (Official photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Scott Cepicky (Official photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Piercey confirmed that policy is correct, eliciting “extreme disappointment” from Pody that the majority of adults could reject the vaccine but that a 14-year-old child “could say yes.”

Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, called the Health Department’s policy “reprehensible,” accusing it of encouraging children to go against their parents’ wishes and get the shots even though “we don’t even know what we’re putting in our bodies.”

Cepicky asked for a vote to bring the Department of Health and Commissioner Piercey back before the committee in July for more discussion and a potential vote on dissolving the department.

Roberts pointed out the Department of Health was created by the Legislature, not a constitutional mandate, which would give the General Assembly the ultimate say-so on whether it continues to operate.

Ultimately, though, legislators persuaded Cepicky to amend his motion and simply ask the department to make changes in its policy and return in July.

Said Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, “I’ve been as critical of the Department of Health as anybody in this room, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to reconstitute a department. I don’t think it’s a good way to run our government.”

Yet another Democrat, Sen. Heidi Campbell of Nashville, said she had seen “no evidence” that the state is targeting minors for vaccinations.


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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.