Democrats slam governor over firing of immunology chief

By: - July 14, 2021 3:06 pm
Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, holds hands with other members of the Democratic Senate Caucus after Gov. Bill Lee's third State of the State Address. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, holds hands with other members of the Democratic Senate Caucus after Gov. Bill Lee’s third State of the State Address. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Two days after Tennessee’s chief immunologist was fired under pressure from anti-vax lawmakers, Democratic leaders blasted the governor for failing to take responsibility for the state’s vaccination policy.

“I think it’s an abdication of leadership,” state Sen. Raumesh Akbari said during an online press conference.

Democrats expressed shock that the Department of Health and Lee Administration would terminate Dr. Michelle Fiscus as the Delta variant ramps up in the Southeast, saying they caved in to political demands of anti-vaccine lawmakers, potentially threatening the health of Tennesseans.

Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, said she hopes national news coverage about Fiscus’ firing will “result in change,” with the Department of Health drawing support from the governor and Republican lawmakers. Otherwise, hospitals and other healthcare facilities will be overwhelmed, she said.

Dr. Michelle "Shelley" Fiscus (Photo: Submitted)
Dr. Michelle “Shelley” Fiscus (Photo: Submitted)

“If this isn’t a wakeup call for our state when we see what the Delta variant is doing, I don’t know what’s gonna happen next,” said Akbari, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Only 38% of people across the state, about 50% of adults, are fully vaccinated. And Fiscus aired concerns in the wake of her firing that Tennessee is headed for disaster as the COVID-19 variant makes its way across the state, already increasing the number of cases and hospitalizations.

Fiscus also confirmed this week that the Department of Health is putting all of its vaccination messaging on hold as children return to school, for everything from childhood measles vaccines to human papilloma virus, in addition to cancelling National Immunization Awareness Month in August. News reports show Commissioner Lisa Piercey nixed any outreach regarding vaccinations.

The Governor’s Office, Department of Health and lawmakers such as Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, have declined to comment about the firing. The trio of lawmakers blasted Health Commissioner Piercey during a June meeting of the Government Operations Committee, accusing her of trying to run a mass vaccination of children and circumvent parental control.

Their outrage stemmed from a memo Fiscus sent to vaccination “partners” letting them know some teens could receive the shots without parental approval based on the state’s Mature Minor Doctrine, which mainly applies to those whose parents are unable to care for them. It is based on a 37-year-old Tennessee Supreme Court ruling.

Since Fiscus went public with her firing this week, Lee dodged reporters after a Tuesday morning event and has not scheduled a press conference to answer questions. His spokesperson declined to comment, calling it a personnel matter.

 The state has seen a 400% increase in COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks, according to reports. Tipton County is the hottest spot with a 3,800% change in cases for 100,000, while Nashville is third nationally with a 3,600% increase, reports show. 

Lee’s view on vaccinations has been sketchy. On one hand he has encouraged them but declined to put any mandates in place, calling the shots a personal choice.

Previously, the governor received the vaccination but didn’t do so publicly. Then, Fiscus said she took the fall for acting at Piercey’s direction and that of the Governor’s Office.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus, called the “political firing” coming out of the Department of Health an “embarrassment” and a “dangerous” situation that could affect the state’s livelihood as it faces the fastest-growing rate of infections in the nation.

The state has seen a 400% increase in COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks, according to reports. Tipton County is the hottest spot with a 3,800% change in cases for 100,000, while Nashville is third nationally with a 3,600% increase, reports show.

“The governor allowed a political firing of the person in charge of immunizations. It’s just unconscionable, and to make matters worse, the damage here isn’t just limited to COVID and the current vaccine drive. The Department of Health has been muzzled from doing proactive communications against any vaccines,” said Yarbro of Nashville.

Gov. Lee is not only responsible for Fiscus’ termination but the state’s low vaccination rate as well, Yarbro said. But rather than standing up to people “pushing disinformation” and conspiracy theories, the governor did a “hatchet job” on a medical professional who was “simply doing her job,” he said.

Rep. Vincent Dixie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said he believes the firing was purely political and noted, “The governor needs to end his political campaign and just do the job of being the governor.” Some critics have said they think Lee is already running for re-election in 2022 and possibly the presidency.

While the Republicans who slammed Piercey and Fiscus in June have been largely silent, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton also had little to say.

A McNally spokesman called the matter an internal administration decision and said the lieutenant governor deferred comment to the Department of Health. Likewise, a spokesman for Sexton said the Department of Health decision to fire Fiscus was made by Commissioner Piercey and her team.

“While members have expressed concerns about the department’s recent vaccine marketing strategy, Speaker Sexton will not speculate on the factors that went into this decision. However, Speaker Sexton does believe that those who have voiced their dissent agree with Monday’s outcome.”

Sen. Frank Nicely, a Strawberry Plains Republican, said Tuesday he believes Fiscus should have been fired for pushing vaccinations on teens. He argued that young people are much less likely to get sick or suffer debilitating illness from COVID-19 and added that he believes people who are obese have been at the greatest risk.

Nicely, who has not been vaccinated, said he believes he can stave off the virus, in part, by keeping his Vitamin B count high.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.