NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) - The commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Health talked with the media for the first time after firing the state's top vaccine official earlier this month.
On Friday morning Dr. Lisa Piercey discussed the Delta variant and updated journalists on Tennessee's vaccine efforts and outreach.
During the meeting, she stated that Tennessee sees a surge in COVID-19 cases. Dr. Piercey said the state had reported more than a 200 percent increase in cases since July 1.
"We haven't seen an uptick yet in deaths, unfortunately, that will probably come in the next few weeks," Piercey said.
The recent surge shows an average of 700 or more cases of COVID-19 per day, similar to trends reported back in early May. However, Dr. Piercey said the cases are not anywhere close to the reports in December and January.
According to the TDH, the increase in cases does not show signs of slowing. The state is seeing an increase in a positivity rate, which is a key indicator. Dr. Piercey also stated that Tennessee has over 500 hospitalizations.
"About 97 percent of all of our hospitalizations and 98-plus-percent of all of our deaths are among the unvaccinated," Piercey said.
To date, just over 1,000 breakthrough cases have been reported statewide. A breakthrough case is when an individual is fully vaccinated but still tests positive for COVID-19. Almost a quarter of the breakthrough cases are asymptomatic.
"To date, we are aware of just over 1,000 breakthrough cases, and that means people who are fully vaccinated. They have subsequently tested positive and of those thousand or so cases, we've had 195 hospitalizations and 27 deaths," Piercey said.
Dr. Piercey said the Delta variant is in Tennessee and is much more contagious.
"All of the testing required to identify a variant is. It takes a special kind of lab, and it takes quite a time to do that…and not just particular to Tennessee," Piercey said. "We don't test every sample to see if it's a particular variant, but we take a subset of the samples and send them to the special abs that do the variant testing. So there is a bit of backlog for that."
The Department of Health states its commitment to immunization is unchanged, and its vaccine efforts are continuing.
"Let's keep this in perspective. We never expected this vaccine to be 100 percent effective. We were expecting kind of 92 to 95 percent effectiveness," Piercey said. "We're actually seeing much more higher than that here. But there are some cases."
Friday was the first time Piercey talked since the termination of the state's top vaccine expert, Dr. Michelle Fiscus.
Fiscus claimed she was fired after she gave some information that medical providers wanted. That information was about the state's "mature minor" doctrine, which says kids 14 and older can get medical care without parental consent.
News4 asked Dr. Piercey about Fiscus' termination and the reasons behind it.
"I really don’t have much to say other than what is in the publicly available documents," Piercey said. "You know the governor empowers all of us in his cabinet to make hiring and firing decisions based on his vision and it is my job and my responsibility to make sure that the policies and the personnel within the department are operating in the course of his vision and in our belief about the appropriate role of the government."
The governor had its first media availability since the controversy surrounding the termination of the state’s top vaccine expert.
She stated that it was never the department's intention to target minors for the vaccine. They thought they were instead educating through their marketing materials.
"Over the course of several conversations not only in that committee hearing but afterwards, it became pretty apparent that legislators felt we were targeting children in those marketing materials," Piercey said.
Dr. Piercey continued stating that legislators represent the will of their people and felt that they were targeting children.
So, the department put a pause in their marketing materials and has since made it clear that parents are responsible for children's medical decision-making.
"You will see us do advertising and marketing that contain children because we still think its very important but going forward, they will have references to parents. Maybe pictures of family and parents," Piercey said. "That’s the only thing that we have stopped permanently is that single focus on child social media that. The advertisements that were held up in the committee hearing. Everything else was paused and is now resumed."
Piercey said she is not aware of any straight up cancelled events, there may have been some that were pushed back out a little bit because of the pause. She also had a message for the six counties who run their own health department.
"My message to those six metro health department is for them to reexamine their materials not make sure they are also appropriately adults and not children," Piercey said.
Piercey said there could be some circumstances where the county health department could use mature minor doctrine in rare cases.
"We all recognize including chairman Roberts as of yesterday when I talked to him and the governor as well," Piercey said. "We do recognize there are some unique situations where there are older teenagers that might be in social situations that don’t allow them to have parents come in with them for one reason or the other and we will be able to continue servicing them under the mature-minor doctrine."
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