Tennessee Fires Vaccine Chief for Promoting Vaccines

Tennessee legislators thought acknowledging the right of teenagers to get medical treatment undermined “parental authority.” Photo: Alisha Jucevic/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If you want a clear and dangerous sign of how far down the anti-vaxx rabbit hole Republicans are going these days, look no further than the shenanigans going on in very red Tennessee the last month. The backstory, as reported by the Nashville Tennessean, is pretty simple:

In May, the state health department’s vaccine chief, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, was asked for guidance on how to deal with vaccination requests for older adolescents. In response, she circulated to providers a memo concerning a well-established state judicial ruling that minors aged 14-17 can obtain medical services without explicit parental consent. (The memo was secured from her agency’s attorney and blessed by the governor’s legal counsel.) One of the providers receiving this memo let Republican legislators know that evil state bureaucrats were undermining “parental authority” and pushing their infernal vaccines on kids. This blew up into a major brouhaha at a June 16 legislative hearing in which lawmakers threatened to shut down the entire state health department over this obvious violation of personal liberty and God’s Law. It got heated:

Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, who repeatedly has spread vaccine misinformation during legislative hearings, insisted the state was misinterpreting its legal authority.

Bowling urged [State Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa] Piercey to “take action” to “remove the fear, the concerns and the anger that has gone across the state as a result of (Fiscus’) letter.”

Piercey did take action, not just on COVID-19 vaccinations, but all of them intended for minors. “The agency halted all online vaccination outreach to teens and deleted Facebook and Twitter posts that gently recommended vaccines to anyone over the age of 12,” the Tennessean reported. “Internal emails obtained by The Tennessean revealed agency leaders ordered county-level staff not to hold any vaccination events intended specifically for adolescents.”

And then having inadvertently stirred up this right-wing hornet’s nest by doing her job, Fiscus got the ax this week. She did no go quietly, releasing a statement that made it pretty plain she thought the legislators who indirectly forced her firing were destructive yahoos, and that her agency superiors were cowards for shutting down vaccination education efforts that had nothing to do with COVID-19.

I was told that I should have been more “politically aware” and that I “poked the bear” when I sent a memo to medical providers clarifying a 34 year old Tennessee Supreme Court ruling. I am not a political operative, I am a physician who was, until today, charged with protecting the people of Tennessee, including its children, against preventable diseases like COVID-19.

I have been terminated for doing my job because some of our politicians have bought into the anti-vaccine misinformation campaign rather than taking the time to speak with the medical experts. 

Now it’s true we have no absolute proof Fiscus was fired for the reasons she claims. But her former employers refused to give the Tennesseean any comment on her termination, and the bang-bang-bang timing of it all leaves little doubt about the chain of events.

The sad truth is that Tennessee Republican legislators are just reflecting a national trend in their party of making the unvaccinated a constituency group that needs to be “protected” from efforts to save their lives (not to mention the lives of those they may infect, and of an entire nation needing herd immunity). But Fiscus says it best:

I am deeply saddened for the people of Tennessee, who will continue to become sick and die from this vaccine-preventable disease because they choose to listen to the nonsense spread by ignorant people.

At this point, you are going to get vaccinated or you are going to get sick. Yes, not getting the vaccine is a personal choice. It’s true that you are likely to survive COVID-19. It’s the 1 out of every 542 people surrounding you that will suffer the consequences of an unfortunate decision to remain vulnerable to this horrible disease.

In the unlikely event that she doesn’t find another job in public health, Dr. Fiscus may have a calling in opinion journalism.

Tennessee Fires Vaccine Chief For Promoting Vaccines