NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The top vaccine official at the Tennessee Department of Health has been fired amid a surge of the COVID-19 Delta variant in the south.
Dr. Michelle Fiscus, now the former Medical Director of the Vaccine-Preventable Diseases Immunizations program, says she is afraid for the state of Tennessee.
“People are going to die of a vaccine-preventable disease,” Fiscus said. “There is no reason anyone in this state should die from COVID-19.”
Governor Bill Lee had no interest in answering why the state’s top vaccine doctor was ousted.
“I’m not commenting on an individual employee that doesn’t work for my office,” Lee said after being asked why Dr. Fiscus was fired.
The Tennessee governor, who appeared at a conference in downtown Nashville Tuesday morning, bolted away from cameras and reporters with the assistance of his security detail.
This comes as the Delta variant is knocking on the border of Tennessee as other southern states, like Arkansas and Mississippi, are seeing surging cases.
“We have got to put aside this partisanship and think about public health for ourselves, for the people we love.”
Representative Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) spoke out against the firing of Dr. Fiscus.
“A few Republican legislators wanted a scapegoat for their anti-science, anti-vaccine, anti-masking ridiculousness,” Johnson said.
Dr. Fiscus said scapegoat is an appropriate way to describe the situation. “Our elected officials, many of them have really bought into this anti-vaccine propaganda that has been widely distributed, and they are not seeking the opinions of medical experts who understand these vaccines and understand this pandemic.”
Though no longer managing the state’s vaccination efforts, Dr. Fiscus said there is still work needed to be done to combat vaccine hesitancy.
“There is a fundamental lack of the ability to discern credible information in the state of Tennessee amongst our leaders as well. They don’t seem to be able to tell the difference between a Facebook meme and a peer-reviewed scientific journal publication. And until we get back to teaching critical thinking skills, it’s going to be really hard to defeat this,” warned Fiscus. “Vaccine hesitant individuals are people…open to talking about the facts. If for me to share the information that I have, and to take that and listen to it and look at people like myself as experts in the field.”
She also spoke about the need to stop the spread of misinformation.
“The staunch anti-vax community, which is very much in the ear of our legislators, it doesn’t matter what vaccine, they bring out for any reason at any time. That group is going to be against that. They’re not interested in science. They’re interested in fear-mongering and passing misinformation and frankly disinformation, to get people to choose not to be vaccinated.”
The controversy all started, Fiscus said, because she informed health partners of the “Mature Minor” Doctrine. In 1987, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled children 14 and older can ask a doctor for a vaccine without the consent of their parents.
“I was given that language, I was told it was blessed by the governor’s office and that I could share it with whomever I wished. I dropped that language into a memo to our COVID-19 providers to give them the guidelines for how and when they can vaccinate minors without a parent present. And someone who received that that memo became upset, felt that it was undermining parental authority and then it got hot with the anti-vaccine groups in Tennessee and they have the ear of the legislators and so this has just absolutely snowballed.”
Fiscus added all messaging regarding any kind of vaccine has ended in response to blowback from the General Assembly.
“My biggest concern is that Tennessee Department of Health leadership, in response to the blowback from the legislature, has now been to cancel any kind of vaccination outreach for childhood vaccines, infant vaccines, flu vaccines in the fall that were scheduled to be given in schools, HPV vaccine messaging so that we can prevent cancer in young adults. All of this messaging has now been put on hold and the department is not permitted to message any of that proactive messaging that saves lives and prevents disease.”
Fiscus said she is concerned for the state of Tennessee.
“I’m worried for the next wave of not only COVID-19 but measles because we don’t have our children protected, or chickenpox, or hepatitis or whatever other vaccine-preventable disease that we have coming through,” Fiscus said. “Because people will not pay attention to common sense, medical science.”
Health Department spokesperson Sarah Tanksley said the agency cannot comment on HR or personnel matters.
As of Monday, state and federal data showed 38% of Tennesseans were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, lagging behind much of the nation.