Legislators seek answers for firing of state’s top vaccination expert

Dr. Michelle Fiscus
Dr. Michelle Fiscus(WSMV)
Updated: Jul. 13, 2021 at 12:10 PM CDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - Legislators and medical doctors are seeking answers after Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the Medical Director of Tennessee’s Vaccine-Preventable Diseases and Immunization program for the Tennessee Department of Health, was fired on Monday.

“I want Governor (Bill) Lee and Commissioner (Lisa) Piercey to explain to those I represent why they fired Dr. Fiscus. Every person in Tennessee relies on and reasonably expects the professionals serving in our state government to rise above politics and perform their respective roles to their utmost ability,” state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, said in a statement released Monday night.

“A well-respected member of the public health community was sacrificed in favor of anti-vaccine ideology,” state Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, said in a statement. “This disgraceful hatchet job is going to endanger the lives of unvaccinated Tennesseans at a time when we have a safe and reliable way to protect our families from the virus. A disappointing and poor decision.”

Fiscus said in a statement that she was terminated, partly because the Department of Health promoted teens ages 13-17 to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.

“It is just astounding to me how absolutely political and self-centered our elected people are here and how very little they care for the people of Tennessee,” Fiscus said in a telephone interview with CNN.

“The people of Tennessee are going to pay a price.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said the decision to fire Fiscus was made by Piercey and the Department of Health.

“The decision by the Department of Health to relieve Dr. Fiscus of her duties was made internally by Commissioner Piercey and her team,” Doug Kufner, Director of Communications for House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said in a statement. “While members have expressed concerns about the department’s recent vaccine marketing strategy, Speaker Sexton will not speculate on the factors that went into this decision. However, Speaker Sexton does believe that those who have voiced their dissent agree with yesterday’s outcome.”

The Tennessee Department of Health was called to appear before the Government Operations Committee due to concern that a memo Fiscus drafted was “a bit of a prodding or encouraging to vaccinate children without parental consent.” In a June committee meeting, she said, “the Department was accused of ‘targeting’ youth through Facebook messaging and its actions were described as ‘reprehensible’ by one Committee member.”

“It is the mission of the Tennessee Department of Health to ‘protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of the people of Tennessee’ and protecting them against the deadliest infectious disease event in more than 100 years IS our job. It’s the most important job we’ve had in recent history,” Fiscus said in a statement. “Specifically, it was MY job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against COVID-19. I have now been terminated for doing exactly that.

“Each of us should be waking up every morning with on question on our minds: ‘What can I do to protect the people of Tennessee against COVID-19?’ Instead, our leaders are putting barriers in place to ensure the people of Tennessee remain at-risk, even with the delta variant bearing down upon us.”

As of Monday, state and federal data showed 38% of Tennesseans were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, lagging behind much of the nation.

The Department of Health instructed county-level employees recently to stop vaccination events aimed at teens and to halt any online outreach to them, The Tennessean previously reported, citing emails it obtained.

The shift came two weeks after a June legislative hearing at which Republican lawmakers admonished the agency for how it was communicating about the vaccine, including through online posts. One digital graphic, which had a photo of a smiling child with a Band-Aid on his arm, said, “Tennesseans 12+ are eligible for vaccines. Give COVID-19 vaccines a shot.”

During the hearing, Republican Rep. Scott Cepicky held up a printout of a Facebook ad saying teens were eligible, and he called the agency’s advocacy “reprehensible” and likened it to peer pressure.

Angry lawmakers invoked Fiscus’ name specifically over a letter she sent to medical providers who administer vaccines explaining the state’s legal mechanism allowing them to vaccinate minors above the age of 14 without parental consent, called the “Mature Minor Doctrine.” The letter was in response to providers’ questions and didn’t contain new information.

Information about the doctrine has been on the health department website since at least 2008 after the doctrine was established in 1987, the health department says.

“Having read Dr. Fiscus’ statement, I am outraged. It is disturbing to think that a governor would terminate someone of Dr. Fiscus’ expertise and experience, especially an individual who has played such a vital role throughout a pandemic, just to appease a cabal of science-denying extremists who currently control the Tennessee Republican Party and have irresponsibly politicized and spread information and disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines,” Clemmons said in a statement.

“Governor Bill Lee, caving to political pressure and firing a state health official like Dr. Michelle Fiscus just for doing her job, while he flees to our country’s southern border for a political gimmick and grandstanding, is more of the same ‘fend for yourself’ approach to our government that is not working or helping anyone,” Dr. Jason Martin, a critical care physician who has been treating COVID-19 patients, said in a statement released by Protect My Care.

“Gov. Lee dealt a blow to the good people of Tennessee with his termination of Dr. Michelle Fiscus, and his purely politicized decision could not have come at a worse time for our state,” Dr. Vidya Bansal, FAAP, a Nashville pediatrician, said in a news release. “With the emergence and increasing prevalence of the COVID Delta variant, Tennesseans now more than ever need leadership guided by science and child advocacy, with a goal of long-term positive health for Tennesseans of all ages.”

The Tennessee Department of Health said in a statement to News4 on Monday that the department does not comment on HR or personnel matters.

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