Stockard on the Stump: State spent millions on vaccine campaign that helped cost Fiscus her job

July 16, 2021 5:00 am
Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee spent $11.4 million on public service campaigns designed to battle COVID-19. The only thing it cost the state to fire its chief immunologist was a lot of embarrassment.

Using coronavirus relief funds, the state paid Designsensory $8.9 million for messaging to encourage mask wearing and social distancing early in the pandemic. Once vaccines were available, it paid the vendor $2.5 million to produce and place a Give It A Shot campaign, according to a Health Department spokeswoman. Those included Department of Health website pictures of young people with a Band-Aid on their shoulder and wording letting people know youths 12-17 were eligible for shots back in June.

Irate Republican lawmakers held up those messages during a June Government Operations meeting where they drilled Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey for perpetrating what they called a mass vaccination of children without parental approval.


The spanking from anti-vaccine legislators, who are also skeptical about the danger of COVID-19, stemmed from a memo the state’s now-former chief immunologist Michelle “Shelley” Fiscus sent to vaccine “partners” such as Walgreens and CVS explaining Tennessee’s Mature Minor Doctrine. The case law allows some teens to get medical treatment such as shots without the consent of parents, mainly those who are unable to take care of their kids because they could be too high on meth to make decent decisions.

Fiscus’ name was broached in that June meeting, but lawmakers’ ire was aimed squarely at Piercey, even though she tried to explain the Health Department’s policy is to encourage vaccinations not put mandates on parents and children. That’s sort of the same message Gov. Bill Lee has delivered for the past year and a half, never really requiring anyone to do anything throughout the pandemic.

Fast-forward to mid-July, though, and Fiscus is the talk of the town – well, really the country – as she went public with the reasons for her abrupt termination. Under pressure from anti-vax lawmakers, Fiscus said she became the scapegoat for Piercey and Gov. Lee. 

Since her dismissal, Tennessee has become the laughingstock of the country, having fired the person in charge of boosting vaccination numbers for the worst pandemic in 100 years. Meanwhile, Lee has dodged reporters, and Piercey has made herself scarce. She isn’t even expected to go back before the Government Operations Committee next week to testify about changes members demanded in June. 

Dr. Michelle Fiscus (Photo: John Partipilo)
Dr. Michelle Fiscus (Photo: John Partipilo)

Republican lawmakers have been strangely silent, using the excuse that they can’t comment on a personnel matter. It’s quite a turnabout from mid-June when they had no trouble grilling Piercey for the perceived missteps. They could be planning a campaign to discredit Fiscus.

An unflattering letter dated July 9 from her supervisor turned up in her file, but she says she never knew about it until a reporter discussed it with her. The letter recommends she be fired, even though she says her evaluations have been strong.

Democratic lawmakers, of course, have been blasting away at Gov. Lee, saying he “abdicated” leadership and put Tennesseans in danger as the Delta variant of COVID-19 starts to sweep the state.

Fiscus contends Designsensory put together the vaccination campaign and the Governor’s Office kept “tight” control over the messages, not the Department of Health. As for the memo on the Mature Minor Doctrine, she might have worded it differently but said its language had approval of legal counsel.

In other words, she took the hit for the governor, and this hasn’t been lost on many.

President Harry Truman used to keep a sign on his desk that said, “The buck stops here.” On the back, it said, “I’m from Missouri.” In Tennessee, apparently we look at things a little differently. Here, we say, “The buck stops – with the immunologist.”

“When you’re the governor, the buck stops with you, and the communications that came out of that department are his responsibility. The firing of Dr. Fiscus is his responsibility. The low vaccination rate is his responsibility,” said state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, Senate Democratic Caucus leader. 

Only 38% of Tennesseans have been vaccinated, and fewer than 50% of adults have had two shots.

Lee’s “unwillingness to stand up to the people who are pushing disinformation, the conspiracy theorists” is getting to the point it’s not only endangering the public but hurting the state’s reputation, Yarbro said. He raised the specter that Tennessee is running into another Scopes Monkey Trial.

When politicians know more – or think they know more – than pediatricians and immunologists, we probably are.

But getting back to the ultimate responsibility. President Harry Truman used to keep a sign on his desk that said, “The buck stops here.” On the back, it said, “I’m from Missouri.” In Tennessee, apparently we look at things a little differently. Here, we say, “The buck stops – with the immunologist.” You have to admit, it does have a certain ring to it.

Immigration under review

While some grumbled that a study committee on immigration continued its work amid the tempest over Fiscus’ firing, members did make some breakthroughs.

Here are some of the high – or low – points of this week’s gathering.

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who hasn’t skipped many opportunities to hammer the Biden Administration even though unaccompanied minors were flowing into the country and Tennessee during the Trump Administration, told state lawmakers she is sponsoring legislation to improve transparency. The bill she is carrying with fellow Republicans, Sen. Bill Hagerty and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Chattanooga, would require the feds to notify state and local governments when they bring immigrant children into states where they usually stay in a licensed facility until they are connected with friends, family or another sponsor. The question is whether they have the clout to pass it.

Instead of beating Biden over the head for the number of people trying to get into the country at the Mexican border, this time Blackburn seemed to stick with the importance of protecting children.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, who has raised questions about the political motivation of Tennessee’s inquiry into children being brought to a Chattanooga shelter, called Blackburn’s statement a bright spot.

“I was a bit surprised at Sen. Blackburn’s statement. She seems to have toned down the rhetoric some. Key word is some,” said Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican. “I was glad to hear her on the record agree with my position on this that we ought to be concerned about the welfare of the children.”

During the meeting, Gardenhire pointed out no proof has been put forward about planes with immigrant children stopping in any cities other than Chattanooga, though some have said planes landed in Knoxville and Nashville. And video of the Chattanooga landing and unloading was shot by someone using a cell phone and then shopped around to TV stations, he said.

I was a bit surprised at Sen. Blackburn's statement. She seems to have toned down the rhetoric some. Key word is some.

– Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga

Gardenhire contends a good deal of misinformation is clouding the panel’s work because of the large number of agencies working on immigration and child welfare, but without coordination. 

Afterward, Gardenhire said he had heard U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, who canceled a presentation to the committee, ramble on about “transparency” and had hoped one of his aides could talk about the situation.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, center, talks with a colleague on the Senate floor. (Photo: John Partipilo)
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, center, talks with a colleague on the Senate floor. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“Transparency’s like the word pornography. It’s in the eyes of the beholder,” Gardenhire said. “I would like somebody to come up and say here’s what we need to know, here’s when we need to know it and, most importantly, what are we going to do with it once we get it.”

Rep. Dan Howell, a Cleveland Republican, noted the committee finally started getting an idea of the number of unaccompanied minors settling in Tennessee, about 1,775 since last October. That information is readily available, though, and has been reported by Tennessee Lookout. It shows the number of unaccompanied minors coming to Tennessee isn’t much higher under the Biden Administration, if at all, than under former President Trump’s watch.

“We are making progress and reaching the goal that was outlined for us by the speakers of the House and Senate,” Howell said afterward. “And then we got an idea of what the bottom line cost is on an average basis to the taxpayers of Tennessee. So we’re making progress. And I want to reiterate, this is not about keeping immigrants out of Tennessee. This is about finding out what it’s costing the taxpayers of Tennessee.”

Fiscal Review staff presented estimates showing over the long term, unaccompanied minors coming to Tennessee could cost $60 million for education over 13 years and several million more for other expenses such as TennCare.

But while determining the expense is one of the main parts of the panel’s mission, getting to the bottom of the Chattanooga situation took up the most time.

The Department of Children’s Services suspended the license of Baptiste Group in Chattanooga where a staff member of La Casa de Sydney is charged with sexually abusing one of the boys who was staying there. An administrative law judge who heard a request to reinstate their license has not made a decision, but the state will take other steps to revoke it if necessary, Commissioner Jennifer Nichols said.

The 60-plus children who were brought there have been sent to other facilities or placed with sponsors.

This brought outrage from Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, who said it was “frustrating” to him that the federal government could “snatch up” witnesses and victims during the midst of a criminal investigation.” 

“It smells of a cover-up,” he said. “That’s very frustrating to me from a law and order standpoint.”

Rep. Bruce Griffey said he was putting the federal government on notice that if they don’t return the alleged teenage victim of sexual abuse at the Baptiste Group for testimony, he would fine it “umconscionable.”

The alleged victim, however, absconded weeks ago and found his way back to his home country of Guatemala, according to the Department of Children’s Services.

It was later pointed out that Chattanooga police have the means to compel people to show up and testify, although it is questionable whether they would be able to get the teen victim to return.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bruce Griffey said he was putting the federal government on notice that if they don’t return the victim for the criminal case, he would find it “unconscionable.” No doubt, this left federal agents shaking.

So where is all this going? To another meeting in August where a good deal of hand-wringing is predicted. Stay tuned.

Making money for the state

The state issued general obligation bonds totaling $658.7 million with an interest rate of 1.41% recently, a move to refinance and take advantage of the low rate, potentially saving $50 million over 14 years, according to the Comptroller’s Office.

Some $125 million will be used to pay for capital projects such as the State Library and Archives building, a new Fall Creek Falls lodge and higher education classroom buildings.

Who will pay?

Tennessee Lookout is still trying to obtain the costs of Tennessee National Guard deployment to the Southern border where Gov. Lee visited over the weekend, as well as missions to Washington, D.C., and protection of the State Capitol in 2020. This is grinding slower than the wheels of justice.

During a press call last Sunday night, Lee said the year-long mission of 300 Guard members to the border is being paid for by the feds. 

He did not rule out, however, that the state would accept outside funding from private groups such as one out of Williamson County that helped pay for South Dakota troops to go to the border.

That’s a little odd.


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.