Tennessee governor says state will work through parents, not children, to promote vaccines

Flanked by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixison, (left) and Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, (near right) Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee holds a ceremonial signing on Wednesday, June 30, 2021, of a law revamping the state's assistance program for impoverished families. (Photo by Andy Sher/Chattanooga Times Free Press)

NASHVILLE - Facing threats by some fellow Republicans in the legislature to abolish or "reconstitute" Tennessee's Department of Health after it conducted outreach to minors encouraging them to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Gov. Bill Lee indicated Wednesday his administration will work through parents going forward.

"The state will continue to encourage folks to seek access, adults for their children and adults for themselves to make the choice, the personal choice for a vaccine," Lee told reporters following a ceremonial signing of legislation overhauling the state's temporary assistance program for working-poor and unemployed families.

Lee added, "That's the responsibility of the state, the responsibility of the Department of Health, that's what I'm encouraging them to stay focused on."

His comments came following a testy June 16 joint House and Senate Government Operations Committee hearing in which a number of Republican lawmakers railed at state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey over flyers, posters and other advertising aimed at school-age teens.

During the hearing, Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, charged health officials were "peer pressuring" teens and young adults to get vaccinations with or without their parents' say-so. "Personally, I think it's reprehensible that you would do that, that you would do that to our youth."

Even after that hearing, the Department of Health on June 21 posted on Twitter an image of a boy with a Band-Aid on his shoulder and the message, "Tennesseans 12+ Eligible for Vaccines. Give COVID-19 vaccines a shot."

photo Twitter / This image was tweeted by the Tennessee Department of Health on June 21

The image was promoted with text from the department saying, "Vaccines: Safe, proven, effective, and eligible for all Tennesseans aged 12+! Book your appointment today."

While Cepicky initially sought a vote to bring Piercey back in July for more discussion and a possible vote on dissolving the department and parceling out its responsibilities, he and others later began toning down the threats - although there will still be a follow-up meeting.

During the same hearing, Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, charged state health officials were promoting the "mature minor doctrine," which arose out of a 1987 state court ruling. Among other things, it says that teens between 14 and 18 have the ability to decide on health treatments, allowing a physician to treat them without parental consent unless it becomes clear the child isn't capable of making a medical decision.

Republican lawmakers were irate that the Health Department was reminding physicians about the "mature minor" issue.

In response to reporters' questions on Wednesday about whether he thought the department's outreach to medical providers about the "mature minor" issue was appropriate, Lee said "from my perspective, what's appropriate from the Department of Health is to provide information on access of vaccines, for adults, for their personal choice and for decisions about their children. That's what is appropriate, and that's what we will continue to do."

The Tennessean reported that state Health Department officials will review the content of the agency's COVID-19 vaccine advocacy campaign, quoting Piercey as saying she doesn't think the department pressured teens to get vaccinated but will review ads and social media postings.

"We are taking a look at all of our messaging that deals with children and making sure that anything we do doesn't target or solicit them because that's not the position of the department," Piercey told the newspaper.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.