Democrats continue call for accountability after top vaccination doctor is fired

Undated photo of the Tennessee House of Representatives during session in 2021.
Undated photo of the Tennessee House of Representatives during session in 2021.(WSMV)
Updated: Jul. 14, 2021 at 4:31 PM CDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - Tennessee Democrats renewed their call for accountability after Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the state’s top vaccination doctor, was fired by the Tennessee Department of Health on Monday.

Democratic leaders held a press conference on Wednesday, calling Fiscus’ dismissal as political.

“We have non-medical people telling medical experts how to do their job,” said state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, Senate Minority Leader. “The Department of Health has been muzzled from doing proactive communication against any vaccine.”

News4 received emails and a situation report that stated the state, “per Dr. (Lisa) Piercey we may not hold any immunization events in or on school property. We also may not hold COVID-19 vaccine events at organizations whose clientele are solely children/adolescents.” The emails also called for the health department not to publicize National Immunization Awareness Month when the Department of Health normally would do a news release and there was a proclamation by the governor and communication to local health departments and partners.

Fiscus asked health department leaders whether “we’ll be permitted to acknowledge the occasion.” The next day she received an email stating, “Per the Commissioner, no outreach at all.”

“People in the health department are afraid to even advocate for this because they are afraid to do their jobs and get backlash if they do,” said state Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville.

The Tennessee Department of Health has refused to comment on Fiscus’ termination, stating the department does not comment on HR or personnel matters, and declined News4′s request to interview Piercey on Wednesday.

However, the department did issue a statement about the state’s ongoing vaccination efforts.

“There has been a lot of misinformation circulating regarding Tennessee’s vaccination efforts. To be clear, our vaccination efforts have not been halted. Tennessee has a long history of being one of the top programs in the nation when it comes to childhood immunization rates. In fact, for more than a decade Tennessee has above 90 percent coverage of kindergarten students receiving childhood immunizations. We are simply taking this time to focus on our messaging and ensure our outreach is focused on parents who are making these decisions for themselves and their families.”

Gov. Bill Lee and Piercey have not responded to questions since Fiscus’ termination was reported. Lee had a photo opportunity on Tuesday and avoided reporters’ questions after the event.

“Right now, the governor appears to be dodging reports on these questions,” said Yarbro. “Refusing to answer basic questions. I think the governor owes the people of Tennessee some explanation of what his policy here is going to be and whether he has an actual plan to make sure Tennesseans are actually protected from COVID-19 as the school year approaches.”

Many school systems report that the wearing of masks will be optional and not required when schools begin to reopen in late July or early August.

According to Department of Health data posted Tuesday, 38.1% of Tennessee residents are currently fully vaccinated and 42.6% of residents have received at least one dose.

“That is a problem. That is an advocation of leadership,” said state Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, Senate Democratic Chairwoman. “I know these words are strong, but that is because it is infuriating that we have opportunities to protect people.”

Tennessee has the highest 14-day case increase percentage in the country currently, according to New York Times data.

Fiscus’ termination has been fodder on national shows on Tuesday and Wednesday, even reaching the White House Briefing Room on Wednesday.

“We’ve been crystal clear that we stand against any effort that would politicize our country’s pandemic response and recovery from COVID-19,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki during Wednesday’s briefing. “So, even as we’ve seen, unfortunately, personnel decisions made in other parts of the country as well over the past several months along these lines, we’re going to continue to work with partners in states like Tennessee and in states across the country to ensure that we are pushing back against misinformation, that we are conveying accurately that the vast majority, 99.5 percent of people, who are going to hospitals are not vaccinated, and ensuring we’re using every tool at our disposal.”

“I hope that the national attention on Tennessee will result in a change,” said Akbari. “If this isn’t a wake-up call for our state, when we see what the Delta variant is doing, I don’t know what is going to happen next.”

Legislators are concerned that health department employees will not be able to do their jobs with restrictions from the Department of Health.

“What’s most concerning is the health department employees were being told not to do their jobs,” said Yarbro. “No longer will physicians be required to tell patients about their second shot for HPV or boosters for their current vaccinations.”

“If they cannot do their job, it’s going to fall on our hospitals, on our healthcare workers, and with the school year starting, who knows what that will lead to,” said Akbari.

Republican legislators on the Government Operations Committee questioned Piercey last month about the department’s vaccination outreach to teens. Legislators were upset that images of teens receiving vaccinations were being used in social media posts and allowing teens to be vaccinated without a parent being with them. The “mature minor doctrine” resulted from a Tennessee Supreme Court ruling 34 years ago allowing anyone between the ages of 14 to 18 can get medical care in Tennessee without parental consent.

These were issues that led to Fiscus’ termination.

“At the end of the day, we have to get the Republican Party on board otherwise we are not going to have any progress,” said Akbari.

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