Commentary: The curious case of Dr. Fiscus

July 16, 2021 6:17 pm
Dr. Michelle Fiscus (Photo: John Partipilo)

Dr. Michelle Fiscus (Photo: John Partipilo)

We began the week in the soap opera that is Tennessee with the firing of the Tennessee Department of Health’s chief immunization director. 

Dr. Michelle “Shelley” Fiscus, a pediatrician by training, was unceremoniously sacked on Monday after four years of service with the state. Fiscus said her termination letter gave no reason for her firing but as it turns out, momentum was building after she became the target of Republican legislators’ ire at a June Government Operations Committee meeting.

GOP lawmakers first put Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the department, on the hot seat, accusing her of pushing COVID-19 vaccines on minors without getting their parents’ consent. As Lookout reporter Sam Stockard wrote at the time, “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.” 

At the time, three members of the committee, Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, Sen. Mark Pody, R- Lebanon, and Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, expressed particular dismay over Piercey and Fiscus’s reference to Tennessee’s Mature-Minor Doctrine, a 30-year old-policy that allows for teenagers 14-18 to make some decisions about their health. Cepicky even suggested that perhaps the Department of Health should be dissolved, a, shall we say, curious opinion at any time but especially during a once a century pandemic. 

So color me skeptical when the Department of Health released a letter dated July 9 that enumerated all the many ways Fiscus had allegedly failed in her job. 

Given the hostility state leaders, including Gov. Bill Lee, have shown towards public health measures during a pandemic and Fiscus’s official evaluations, credibility in the dispute tips towards Fiscus.

At the Lookout, we are in the business of skepticism about government and government officials. We are also in the business of holding government and officials accountable for their actions. So if Fiscus did, in fact, fail at her job to the extent firing was warranted, so be it. 

But facts don’t bear that out. 

  • First, one might question Fiscus’s track record at the department. Typically, job performance issues surface well before the four-year mark. The Department of Health wasn’t forthcoming with the doctor’s annual evaluations but Fiscus, as the saying goes, had the receipts, and she shared them with Nashville journalists. A thorough reading of the evaluations belied the July 9 letter: the same person who wrote the letter calling for her termination, Dr. Timothy Jones, approved years of evaluations praising Fiscus for her demeanor, effectiveness and efficiency, ability to exceed goals and even for making the workplace fun. 
  • The July 9 letter from Jones referenced conversations that began with Fiscus in March 2021 about her job performance. Her last performance evaluation was October 2020. While it’s possible a prized employee’s performance plummeted in five months to the point that firing became necessary, it’s not likely. 
  • Where’s the metadata from the July 9 letter? Was the letter attached to an email? The existence of a dated letter means nothing without knowing when it was transmitted. It could have been written after Fiscus became something of a cause celebre and her firing made national news. (And made Tennessee a laughingstock, after Fiscus released emails proving  Commissioner Piercey shut down notification of all vaccine programs.) 
  • As anyone who has served in a management position knows, it’s pretty hard to fire an employee, even in an at-will state like Tennessee. And in no area is it harder to get fired than the government, so one would expect the Health Department to have amassed sufficient documentation to justify Fiscus’s firing. While some of that would be considered confidential, there are plenty of disgruntled employees there who are happy to leak helpful information to journalists. I question why, if such documentation exists, no one has been made privy to a shred of it. 
  • Several Republican state legislators began to whisper early in the week that Fiscus’s personnel file was damning. I can’t help but wonder why random legislators would know about a department personnel matter, especially since nothing has backed up their assertions. 
  • Finally, Fiscus prepared a response to the July 9 letter stating that as late as last week, Jones was telling her she was a valued team member and bringing her gifts. 

We may not ever know the full story, but given the hostility Tennessee legislators and Gov. Bill Lee have shown to reasonable public health measures during the COVID-19 crisis — from unwillingness to urge mask-wearing and anti-vaccine policies that extend beyond COVID-19 shots — credibility tips to Fiscus. If I’m wrong, I hope the Lee administration will share information that proves it and I’ll be happy to write a mea culpa. 

Firing a trusted health expert and curbing information about transmittable diseases at the time the Delta variant of COVID-19 is on the rise is a boneheaded political move. But this isn’t the first time Gov. Lee and his administration have failed Tennesseans, placing their bizarre political motivations over the well-being of their constituents, and sadly, it likely won’t be the last. 


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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.