Stockard on the Stump: Republican lawmakers split over Fiscus firing

Plus: Gov. Lee dodges responsibility for vaccines, Sen. Bowling references anti-vaccine doctor

July 23, 2021 5:01 am
Dr. Michelle Fiscus prepares for an interview in her Williamson County home. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Dr. Michelle Fiscus prepares for an interview in her Williamson County home in July. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The group of anti-vax legislators whose complaints about the Department of Health vaccine campaign led to the firing of Dr. Michelle Fiscus won’t say much about her termination.

But there is a clear break between that group and others who think the state made the wrong move. The topic is so sensitive that most lawmakers won’t discuss it on the record.

One highly respected Republican lawmaker, though, said this week he thinks the firing of Fiscus was “improper,” unless she did something else that was extremely bad. Another Republican legislator also called the firing “stupid,” saying he wasn’t enthused with the state trying to encourage kids to get shots but didn’t think the department did anything wrong.

After the Department of Health fired Fiscus last week, it came out with a letter stating a litany of problems during her four-year tenure at the department. But what it came down to was her memo to “vaccine partners” explaining the state’s Mature Minor Doctrine, based on a 1987 Supreme Court decision determining when those under 18 can receive medical treatment without parental consent.

Fiscus responded with a set of evaluations showing she did strong work for the department, especially during the pandemic.

One GOP legislator called the firing of Dr. Michelle Fiscus “stupid.” Another called it “improper.” Meanwhile, Fiscus continues to make national news as she rakes Tennessee’s leadership over the coals.  

Lawmakers on the committee who raised doubts about the impact of vaccines on teens say she went too far, though most wouldn’t discuss it later. And even though Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey defended the state’s stance, she ultimately put Fiscus on the chopping block. 

Piercey was vacationing in Greece this week and didn’t attend a Wednesday Government Operations Committee where she was expected to show what steps the state took to soften its campaign to vaccinate teens. But apparently she did enough to placate Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, and Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge.

Fiscus, on the other hand, has been working the press, garnering interviews with everyone from CNN to the New York Times to talk about the state’s backwards vaccine policy.

Of course, who would have thought getting vaccines would turn into a political struggle? But it has, and Tennessee is worse for the wear.

Gov. Bill at a Thursday press conference. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Gov. Bill at a Thursday press conference. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Governor plays artful dodger

Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday supported the Health Department’s decision to fire Dr. Fiscus in the midst of the pandemic, while also saying he believes vaccinations are the state’s “best tool” to manage the COVID-19 situation.

In his first media availability since Fiscus’ firing, asked if he feels responsible for people’s hesitancy to get the vaccine, Lee said, “I have a responsibility to stand before the press and encourage Tennesseans to get a vaccine.”

It was the strongest stance he’s taken yet on vaccinations, especially since he avoided publicly taking the shots.

But at the same time, he said he wasn’t involved in terminating the state’s top immunologist amid a pandemic. Apparently, her major sin was sending vaccine partners such as drugstores a legal interpretation of the state’s Mature Minor Doctrine, which would enable some under 18 to get a show without parental position. 

Lee apparently doesn’t believe in the Supreme Court’s 1987 decision, because he said parents should always decide whether children should be vaccinated. Even if they’re on crack?

Despite Fiscus’s claim that all Health Department messages went through the Governor’s Office communications team, Lee would not take responsibility for messaging that encouraged youths to get shots, saying several times all messages should have been targeted at parents, who should decide whether their kids get vaccinated.

But in an odd back-and-forth toward the end of his lengthy presser, when asked if Commissioner Piercey should have taken responsibility for the vaccination campaign messages, Lee said, “I’m happy to take responsibility for messaging. I didn’t make the specific decisions about that. I didn’t make personnel decisions for that department. That’s not what a governor does.”

Maybe he was saying he supported Commissioner Piercey’s decisions on marketing and messaging to minors, in that she stopped that type of campaign. Instead of a white girl who looks about 16 showing a Band-Aid on her shoulder, the state’s website shows a Black man, about 20, with a Band-Aid on his shoulder. 

So let’s get this straight: You say you’re supportive, so you’re taking responsibility for the messaging that went out?

“I’m supportive of the messaging. I’m supportive of it. I don’t make decisions that are made internally.”

Gee whiz, Toto.

Anti-vaxers at work

Legislators such as Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, and Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, who trounced Piercey and the department’s vaccine campaign in June, won’t say whether the commissioner or the governor should have taken responsibility.

Raising serious doubts about the efficacy of the vaccine and its impact on teens in an interview with the Tennessee Lookout, Bowling started to say the blame should lie with Fiscus because of her memo but then trailed off in an interview with Tennessee Lookout. Then, she also noted the buck usually stops with the commander, in this case the commissioner. But she gave Gov. Bill Lee a pass, saying she had always heard him say vaccines should depend on parental choice. 

Piercey told the Government Operations Committee in June that any school vaccine program would require parental permission. She also noted that any minors who go to state health departments seeking vaccinations without parental consent would receive the shots only in rare situations.

Bowling, though, contends the committee had to tell Piercey that parental permission is required in all cases. She scoffed at the Mature Minor Doctrine.

Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, and Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, during a meeting of the Joint Government Operations Committee on Wednesday. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, and Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, during a meeting of the Joint Government Operations Committee on Wednesday. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“I’ve talked to many doctors. They’ve said they wouldn’t dream of treating a 16-year-old without parental consent for an emergency situation. This was a very bizarre situation, with no FDA approval, the World Health Organization saying do not give young people 18 and under the shot,” Bowling said.

She referred to an obscure doctor named Robert Malone, considered an anti-vaccine theorist, who has said the vaccines should not be given to children. Furthermore, she said young people have “zero statistical chance” of health impairment or death from COVID-19.

“Everybody wants science. That’s science. And the fact that children are immature and need parental oversight, that’s science,” she said. 

Taking things further, she called the vaccine a prophylactic, saying it only inhibits or decreases 87% of COVID-19 symptoms and that items such as zinc and other vitamins should do the trick.

She might be going along with the conspiracy theory that the pandemic was dreamed up to spawn a vaccine – pure science.

That’s why the number of cases plummeted when people started taking the vaccine.

Bolstering the mega-site

The state Department of General Services is getting ready to take bids for an estimated $75 million wastewater line from the Memphis Regional Mega-site in Haywood County to the Mississippi River in hopes of luring a major manufacturer.

But it apparently won’t be for an alternative design that would enable retail and residential development to hook on from Haywood to Shelby to Tipton counties.

“We remain focused on the governor’s order, and that is to commence with the construction of this pipeline to the Mississippi. Based on some of the prospects and the conversations we’ve had, the demand for the amount of discharge would far exceed the options that exist as far as running a pipe to the Covington Utility District,” Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe said this week.

A site plan of the Memphis Megasite. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development)
A site plan of the Memphis Megasite. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development)

Lack of infrastructure at the 4,200-acre site is generally blamed for its failure to land an automotive manufacturer that wound up in Alabama.

Gov. Bill Lee recently called for construction of the long-awaited project, which will run 36.4 miles to the Covington Utility District. Tennessee will own the line, as well as water and wastewater treatment facilities at the mega-site and hire a contractor to run them. The line should be completed in less than two years.

Rolfe, who spoke to the Joint Government Operations Committee Wednesday, says the move is drawing more interest in the mega-site than it’s seen in years.

“The pipeline of interest (no pun intended, I suppose), not only in the mega-site but across the state of Tennessee, is off the charts,” Rolfe said.

One of the governor’s mandates to the department is to “make sure we plant the (electric vehicle) flag across the state,” Rolfe said.

Electric vehicle projects at General Motors, Volkswagen and other facilities across the state are all a part of the electric vehicle transformation, Rolfe said. But he wouldn’t say whether they dovetail with the mega-site.

Anyone who’s been by the site off I-40 is likely wondering why it has the Memphis moniker. That’s the biggest town in the region, but it ain’t just down the road.

Those beautiful buyouts

Two weeks into offering more than $2.5 million in air fare discounts to anyone who flies to Tennessee to spend a couple of nights in a hotel here (now expanded to the Tri-Cities from the Big Four), the Lee Administration embarked on a $20 million plan to buy out 625 employees in the executive branch. 

The Tennessee Journal reports it is similar to former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s $35 million buyout of state employees when the Great Recession hit. 

The state embarked on this plan last when the economy crashed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These days, the state has so much federal money it isn’t sure how to spend it, and state revenues are suprasing estimates quarterly.

For anyone taking the buyout, enjoy the money while you can. But be prepared for a few butterflies in the belly. Those buyouts aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.

Handcuffing UT

The Joint Government Operations Committee tried to force the University of Tennessee to change its vaccination plan for this academic year and to revert to an old conduct code instead of making it more “inclusive” for all students, including transgenders. 

Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, balked at the university’s plan for medical students, saying they should be able to reject vaccinations for religious reasons. He sponsored similar legislation earlier this year.

Minutes later, Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Mark Cochran, R-Englewood, disagreed with a change in the conduct code, even though UT’s attorney said a new preamble for the code was requested by students.

Cochran argued that the “inclusive” code doesn’t represent the people of Tennessee, pointing out there is no such thing as “gender fluidity,” you’re either male or female. He drew a response from Rep. London Lamar, D-Memphis, who asked whether the Legislature could discriminate in that fashion, especially since students sought the change.

The state is already being sued for legislation passed this year requiring businesses to post signs if they allow transgender customers to use any restroom.

University of Tennessee students requested an amendment to the school conduct code in order to make the university more inclusive. Legislators took issue with the additional nod to inclusivity.

UT President Randy Boyd was satisfied later, despite the change in the conduct code preamble. He pointed out the committee went along with the rules but amended the preamble only slightly. I guess it depends on your definition of slightly.

The university system’s immunization policy remains intact in spite of Pody’s pontificating. Last year, UT required flu shots for a semester because the CDC recommended it. With the pandemic subsiding, it wasn’t necessary, Boyd said. 

Permanent rules are needed for other immunizations, but under state law, the university system can’t require COVID-19 vaccines.

“We had to follow state law. State law says you can’t do that. We’re encouraging it,” Boyd said of COVID-19 vaccinations.

No exceptions are permitted, either, he said. That goes even for athletes who might be butting heads with Alabama Crimson Tide or blocking out Kentucky Wildcats off the boards. (Thank you, state Legislature.)

Some major conferences are worried already about the Delta variant and its potential impact on football games this fall. Coaches also are wondering if they’re going to wind up missing their star quarterback or tailback on game day.

If I’m coaching, though, I guarantee my players would be getting the shots. Otherwise, they’ll be running until their mama has to hunt ’em with a flashlight.

No more dodging Yankees

By the way, the state was supposed to move the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest out of the State Capitol Friday morning. Black lawmakers gave Gov. Lee credit. After all, he sought removal and voted for it, bucking the Republican-controlled Legislature.


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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.