Tennessee fires top vaccination official amid pandemic

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Nursing supervisor Nadine Stone fills syringes with vaccine at First Baptist Church in Cleveland, Tennessee, on March 30.
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Nursing supervisor Nadine Stone fills syringes with vaccine at First Baptist Church in Cleveland, Tennessee, on March 30.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee officials have fired the state's top vaccination official, who had been facing scrutiny from Republican state lawmakers over her department's outreach efforts to vaccinate teenagers against COVID-19.

Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health, told The Tennessean that she was fired Monday as a scapegoat to appease lawmakers. She provided the newspaper with a copy of her termination letter, which does not explain the reasoning for her dismissal.

Health Department spokesperson Sarah Tanksley said the agency would not comment on the termination.

"It was my job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against COVID-19," Fiscus said in a statement to the newspaper. "I have now been terminated for doing exactly that."

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 bandaid 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.

Fiscus says the health department's attorney provided her the letter. The attorney had said the letter had been "blessed by the governor's office."

At the June hearing, Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said she knew of only eight times this year when the doctrine was invoked, and three of them were for her own children, who received vaccines while she was at work.

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