Sen. Kerry Roberts, right, has expressed concern about the pace of enrollment in a program designed to help Tennesseans with medically fragile or disabled children. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Bruce Griffey says he’s not “anti-vax,” yet he is one of a growing number of legislators leery of masks and vaccination campaigns and gaining a bigger voice in the General Assembly.
In fact, the Paris Republican believes only a small group of people should take the shots, those over 60 with co-morbidities.
That outlook conflicts with the stance of a majority of Senate Republicans who sent out a letter Tuesday encouraging all eligible Tennesseans to be vaccinated. It is signed by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and other senators who fear Tennessee’s reputation is being tainted by recent events.
Despite progress against COVID-19, the Delta variant is causing a spike in cases, most of them among unvaccinated people, and most of those hospitalized are not vaccinated, the letter says.
“As people across our state are exposed to the spread of this deadly virus, we strongly urge Tennesseans who do not have a religious objection or a legitimate medical issue to get vaccinated,” the letter signed by 16 of 27 Republican senators says.
The letter notes that 600,000 families would not be mourning the death of loved ones if the vaccine had been available from the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also points out that the COVID-19 vaccines are beyond the trial stage with nearly 338 million doses being administered with few adverse effects.
The senators’ letter points toward facts presented by Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the New England Journal of Medicine showing the efficacy of the vaccine.
“Unfortunately, efforts to get more people vaccinated have been hampered by the politicization of COVID-19. This should not be political,” the letter states.
Griffey, though, is so confident about his stance he is circulating a letter to what he calls his “conservative base” in the Legislature to sign and send to school districts statewide notifying them state law prohibits them from mandating masks for students or segregating unvaccinated children from those who’ve had shots.
“Citizens should rightfully expect that our state government will not exceed its authority by making rules that have no basis in state law or in our Tennessee Constitution,” Griffey’s letter states.
In his letter, Griffey points out the Legislature hasn’t given school boards or superintendent’s authority to require face coverings or set rules dealing with health care or prevention of communicable diseases.
He was to send out the letter early this week even with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control set to recommend some people who’ve had vaccinations should wear masks while indoors.
“As such, any attempts to create alternative learning environments for unvaccinated students, segregate such students, or treat them any differently would be potentially unlawful in the state of Tennessee,” the letter says.
Shelby County Schools is the only district so far planning to require students to wear masks. Metro Nashville Public Schools is “highly encouraging” students to wear them but not requiring them.
Griffey contends scientific studies don’t support the effectiveness of masks, and he asks, “Why are we jumping off the deep end of the pool to require people to comply with a certain standard if the standard is not supported by the science.”
Asked about Griffey’s letter, the Tennessee Department of Education deferred to the Health Department regarding health guidance but appeared to contradict Griffey’s assertions.
“In coordination with the local boards and health authorities, school districts have the authority to make masking decisions they believe are in the best interests of their students and communities,” said Education Department spokesman Brian Blackley.
Despite a decrease in the number of people with COVID-19 since vaccination drives started in March, Griffey is skeptical of the vaccine. He says he would get the shots only if he were over 60 and overweight or had a comorbidity, which could include diabetes, heart disease and any number of illnesses that could make a person susceptible to death by catching COVID-19.
“I think vaccinations are extremely helpful for certain at-risk populations. At the same time, I don’t know that the science supports vaccinations for other populations that aren’t at as great a risk of COVID-adverse reactions, hospitalizations, death,” Griffey said this week.
His stance seems to conflict with the policies of the major hospitals, such as Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which is requiring all of its leadership to be vaccinated as part of an effort to have all personnel get the shots.
Griffey is also one of several lawmakers opposed to opposed to encouraging youths and those under 30 to take the vaccine, which he says is “unproven” because the Food and Drug Administration approved it on an emergency basis. Going further, he says it’s not needed when those who catch the disease have a 99.78% chance of recovery, which he cites in news sources.
A handful of lawmakers challenged the Department of Health’s vaccine campaign in June and got their way in mid-July.
Despite the Delta variant ramping up in Tennessee, the Department of Health fired its chief immunologist, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, for the state’s efforts to encourage teens to be vaccinated and for sending “vaccine partners” an explanation of Tennessee’s Mature Minor Doctrine, which allows some minors over 14 to obtain medical treatment in rare cases their parents aren’t able to give permission.
Fiscus claimed she was made the scapegoat for the Health Department and Gov. Bill Lee after conservative lawmakers grilled Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey for vaccine messaging to teens and her memo on the Mature Minor Doctrine. The governor last week backed her firing and refused to take responsibility for the state’s messaging campaign, even though Fiscus said it ran through the governor’s communications office.
Lee said he adamantly opposes any campaign to vaccinate children without their parents’ permission, even though the Health Department didn’t push that message. At the same time, he said vaccinations are the state’s “best tool” to combat COVID-19.
The Legislature’s Joint Government Operations Committee is run by members who appear skeptical – at best – of vaccinations, especially for teens. Not only did its two chairmen rail against state messaging aimed at children, they slammed the Health Department for alleged efforts to vaccinate teens without parents’ permission.
Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, read a statement last week he wrote with Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, warning schools against coercing, bullying or cajoling students to be vaccinated.
Roberts also said any description of legislators as “anti-vax” was intellectually dishonest. Yet he and other lawmakers met with the Governor’s Office and Piercey, who confirmed to them the department’s policy is not to vaccinate children without parents’ consent. She also detailed steps to stop marketing vaccinations to minors in the meeting, which is considered the beginning of the end for Fiscus’ tenure with the Health Department.
In addition, Roberts cited instances of football coaches requiring players to get vaccinated if they don’t wear masks or get tested weekly, band directors suspending marching band members from halftime shows if they don’t get vaccinated, and a teacher shaming children by segregating them from vaccinated children. He did not cite specifics.
I get the sense that the real leadership of the GOP caucus is asleep at the wheel and unwittingly allowing a bunch of extremist sophomore legislators to steer their ship straight into the shoals.
– Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville
Throughout the pandemic, conservative lawmakers and citizen groups have raised doubts about danger of COVID-19 and questioned the governor’s decisions to close down non-essential businesses.
Since the outbreak in March 2020, 884,417 Tennesseans caught the virus, 883 since Monday alone, with 12,690 dying from the disease. Hospitalizations increased to 702 Tuesday, up 47 from the previous day as the Delta variant continued to creep across the state.
Of the 6,231 COVID-19 tests administered Monday, 12.6% were positive, according to the Department of Health, a sign the virus is making a comeback.
State Rep. Bo Mitchell was incredulous Tuesday, not only at the efforts of lawmakers bent on limiting the state’s vaccination campaign, which has reached only about 40% of residents, but at the governor’s efforts on vaccinations as well. Even messaging about the state’s other vaccination programs has been put on hold, and the Department of Children’s Services dialed back efforts to vaccinate children in its custody.
“A foothold in the Legislature? What about a foothold in the governor’s mansion, the Legislature and every aspect of government in Tennessee,” Mitchell said. “It’s ridiculous, it’s dangerous, and it’s harming the citizens of the state, men, women and children, and I hope it doesn’t cause unnecessary death in our state.”
The Nashville Democrat said he believes every eligible resident should be vaccinated to stop the spread of the virus, especially with 89 of 95 counties seeing a surge in COVID-19. To quell another serious wave, Mitchell said those with influence need to encourage people to get the vaccine now.
Despite sending mixed signals about the vaccine and the effect of COVID-19 on children, Lee did say last week some 62,000 more people had been vaccinated.
But Mitchell said he believes the governor is responsible for the low percentage of vaccinations, a little more than 40% of all Tennesseans and just more than 50% of adults.
“When you have a governor that fires the lady who’s in charge of the vaccination program in the state and you have legislators that called for her head, it seems like leadership is the one misinforming the citizens of this state and putting their lives in danger,” Mitchell said.
Despite Griffey’s contention that only older people with comorbidities have problems, Mitchell said residents should listen to physicians who are encouraging them to be vaccinated rather than politicians who are trying to burnish their conservative credentials.
Griffey, nevertheless, points to studies published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showing masks have a negative effect on the people who wear them, even though governments around the globe require or encourage them.
He also provided the Tennessee Lookout with an article published in the Foundation for Economic Education on a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine casting doubt on policies forcing healthy people to wear masks. Denmark researchers found that surgical masks didn’t protect people from infection in a large clinical trial, according to the study.
The Paris Republican also cites an MSN story showing 99% of COVID-19 cases are survived. Yet the same story notes that many of those who lived through the illness suffered near-fatal experiences, including lengthy hospital stays and lingering effects.
Griffey hasn’t worn a mask during legislative meetings. And some Republicans have questioned those who do. During a Government Operations Committee meeting last week, Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill, asked a physician testifying before the committee why she wore a mask if she had been vaccinated.
Rep. John Ray Clemmons, who has worn a mask religiously since the pandemic started, raised doubts about whether the group of legislators leading the charge against masks and vaccinations is gaining influence.
“Rather, I get the sense that the real leadership of the GOP caucus is asleep at the wheel and unwittingly allowing a bunch of extremist sophomore legislators to steer their ship straight into the shoals,” Clemmons said.
Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, said he is concerned Tennessee families will wind up hurting as a result.
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