Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)
One of Tennessee’s leading medical experts was fired this week, taking the fall for Gov. Bill Lee, when his administration caved in to ultra-conservative lawmakers upset with the state’s COVID-19 vaccine messaging toward teens.
The department fired Dr. Shelley Fiscus, state director for vaccine-preventable and infectious diseases, even though she had been working at the direction of Commissioner Lisa Piercey to encourage Tennesseans – including teens – to be vaccinated and despite control of messaging by the Governor’s Office.
“The Department of Health pandered to legislators who really seem to have bought into a lot of anti-vaccine rhetoric and obviously don’t understand the mission of the Department of Health or what public health is and in an effort to appease them, the Governor’s Office and Commissioner Piercey decided to terminate my employment with the Department of Health,” said Fiscus, a Franklin pediatrician who had been with the department for four and a half years.
A spokesperson for Lee declined to comment.
Fiscus, whose husband ran as an independent against Republican Rep. Glen Casada of Thompson Station in the 2020 election, said public health should never be made a partisan subject. Yet vaccinations became “so heavily politicized” that people started making “life-and-death decisions” based on their politics, not science, creating a “tragic” situation, she said.
Her firing came nearly a month after the Joint Government Operations Committee accused Piercey of trying to conduct a mass vaccination of children without parental consent, with at least one lawmaker calling the department’s actions “reprehensible.”
During the meeting, 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 she couldn’t make them believe her, and shortly afterward, a group of anti-vaccine residents testified against the need for vaccinations, using conspiracy theories to undermine the shots.
Rep. Scott Cepicky, a Culleoka Republican, wanted to dissolve and reconstitute the Department of Health but was persuaded to give Piercey a chance to make amends and come back with a new philosophy. Instead, Fiscus said, Piercey met with lawmakers last week and the result was her firing.
The outcry among Cepicky and other conservative lawmakers stemmed, in part, from a memo Fiscus sent to “vaccination partners” discussing emergency use authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for children 12 and under. It dealt with Tennessee’s Mature Minor Doctrine in which children would be allowed to receive vaccinations in rare cases when parents are incapable of taking care of their kids.
During that meeting, Piercey said lawmakers believed “we are hiding in dark alleys and whispering to kids, hey, come get vaccinated.” She reiterated the Department of Health believes vaccination is the right move for children but that it is leaving it up to parents.
The Department of Health declined comment Monday on Fiscus’ comments, saying it does not comment on personnel matters. Cepicky and the Governor’s Office did not respond to calls and emails immediately Tuesday morning.
Fiscus, though, pointed out that Piercey made a Facebook message encouraging adolescents to be vaccinated. And with the Delta variant spreading into Tennessee from states such as Missouri and Arkansas, she fears Tennessee is heading for disaster.
Since sending the memo, which was approved by the Department of Health general counsel and a 34-year-old a court ruling, what she saw transpire she could only describe as “bizarre” in a statement to media.
Fiscus made note of Cepicky’s effort to remake the Department of Health during the pandemic when one of every 542 Tennesseans died from the disease and only 38% of residents took the vaccine.
She pointed out her job was to provide “evidence-based education and vaccine access to Tennesseans could protect themselves but found herself on the wrong end of the political equation and, finally, terminated.
Fiscus pointed out the Department of Health “reacted to the sabre rattling” of the Government Operations Committee by stopping all vaccination outreach for children, for all diseases, including back-to-school messages for parents on measles vaccines, as well as human papillomavirus vaccine.
“This is a failure of public health to protect the people of Tennessee and that is what is ‘reprehensible,’” she said in her statement.
Fiscus added that she was told she should have been more “politically aware” and that she “poked the bear” by sending the memo to drugstores that offered vaccinations.
Furthermore, she said Health Department workers are “heroes” who have saved lives. “They are to be honored and commended, not cursed and vilified. And the ‘leaders’ of this state who have put their heads in the sand and denied the existence of COVID-19 or thought they knew better than the scientists who have spent their lives working to prevent disease … who have ignored the dead and dying surrounding them – even when their own colleagues have fought for their lives – they are what is ‘reprehensible.’ I am ashamed of them. I am afraid for my state.”
Fiscus told Tennessee Lookout the Department of Health began asking the governor in October 2020 to start a campaign on the importance of vaccines and was “effectively ignored.” Not until the last two weeks did the state start sending any messages about the importance of getting vaccinated, she said, noting the Governor’s Office has had “tight control” over the campaign.
The former immunology chief feels the governor sent mixed messages to the public about COVID-19 and vaccinations. Lee has encouraged vaccinations but said they should be voluntary. She pointed out he had the opportunity to publicly receive a vaccination but chose to keep it quiet until he admitted to the press he had received his first dose.
“I think it’s very clear this administration has grown tired of dealing with the pandemic, and it doesn’t really matter what the reality of it is because they’ve decided that they’re done acknowledging that it’s a problem. And Tennesseans are going to continue to get sick and die because of it,” she said.
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