Tennessee governor takes heat for firing state health official who advocated teen vaccinations

AP file photo / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters in January in Nashville.

NASHVILLE - Legislative Democrats on Wednesday criticized Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee over the firing of the state's immunization director over outreach to youth to get coronavirus vaccines.

"I think it's an abdication of leadership," Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Raumesh Akbari said of Lee during an online news conference with reporters.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said the governor should first have defended Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who was director of vaccine-preventable disease and immunization until her dismissal on Monday, and then started a more serious effort to combat a rise in COVID-19 infections.

(READ MORE: Ex-Tennessee vaccine leader: Firing put politics over health)

Instead, Yarbro said, Lee joined with his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly in a "political hatchet job" against a doctor "who is just trying to do her job.

"Sometimes you have to stand up to people even when they're on your side," Yarbro said of Lee and his relationship with fellow Republicans.

He added that the governor's "unwillingness to step up to the people who are pushing misinformation, the conspiracy theorists, is just getting to a place that it's not just endangering us, it's really going to start doing long-term damage to the reputation of our state."

Fiscus' firing has made national news and made it into the White House's daily briefing on Wednesday with a question to President Joe Biden's press secretary, Jen Psaki, about it. While Psaki declined to comment directly on the dismissal, she said the Biden administration has been "clear that we stand against any effort that would politicize our country's pandemic response and recovery from COVID-19."

Psaki also said federal officials will continue working with Tennessee and other states to ensure "we are conveying accurately that the vast majority, 99.5% of people who are going to hospitals, are not vaccinated."

(READ MORE: Child vaccine push remains strong in Chattanooga as state halts efforts)

Asked about Fiscus' dismissal, Lee communications director Laine Arnold stated in an email that "while we don't offer comments on personnel matters, I would be remiss if I didn't note Tennessee is not a civil service state. It is an at-will employment model, which is commonly referred to as 'serving at the pleasure.'"

photo In this image made from video, Michelle Fiscus speaks to the Associated Press, from Franklin, Tenn., on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Fiscus, Tennessee's top vaccinations official, said she couldn't stay silent after was she was fired this week amid scrutiny from Republican state lawmakers over her department's outreach efforts to vaccinate teenagers against COVID-19. (AP Photo)

Arnold said the health department is also "mindful of ensuring parents, not kids, are the intended audience for any outreach efforts regarding medical decisions for children and has simply re-evaluated some tactics like remind postcards and follow-up communications."

Democrats also criticized the Lee administration and Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey and other officials for dropping annual plans to promote August as National Immunization Awareness Month with a proclamation from the governor, news release by the department and outreach to county health departments, emails obtained by WTVF-TV in Nashville show.

Fiscus had written, "Please let me know if we'll be permitted to acknowledge the occasion."

Replied Dr. Tim Jones, the department's chief medical officer: "Per the commissioner, no outreach at all" in an apparent reference to Piercey.

(READ MORE: Tennessee governor says state will work through parents, not children, to promote vaccines)

Arnold said, "there have been a number of misleading reports about halting immunizations for children - the Department of Health has not halted the Vaccines for Children program that provides information and vaccine access to Tennessee parents. This program covers immunizations including DTap, MMR, Polio, Chickenpox and Hepatitis B and will continue to be successfully administered."

While childhood immunization rates dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, Arnold said the state is "already seeing vaccination rates rebound to pre-pandemic levels and will continue supporting parents who are working to get their families back on track."

The issue boiled over during a June meeting of the legislature's joint Government Operations Committee.

Lawmaker ire was raised by a letter previously sent to medical providers who administer vaccines in which Fiscus explained a 37-year-old Tennessee Supreme Court ruling known as the "mature minor doctrine " allowing minors as young as 14 to seek medical care without their parents or guardians' consent.

Fiscus said the health department's attorney provided the letter, based on the 1987 ruling.

(READ MORE: Tennessee to administer COVID-19 vaccine to young teens)

Lawmakers admonished the agency for its communications about the vaccine, including online posts. One graphic, featuring a photo of a smiling child with a Band-Aid on his arm, said, "Tennesseans 12+ are eligible for vaccines. Give COVID-19 vaccines a shot."

During the hearing, Republican Rep. Scott Cepicky of Culleoka displayed a copy of a Facebook ad that said teens were eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination. Calling it "reprehensible" that teens were being told they were eligible, he said the ads were tantamount to peer pressure, The Associated Press reported.

Asked about the hearing later by the Times Free Press, Lee said the state will "continue to encourage folks to seek access - adults for their children, and adults for themselves, to make the personal choice for vaccine."

Two weeks after the hearing, the state instructed county-level employees to end vaccination events aimed at teens and stop online outreach to them, The Tennessean reported, citing emails the newspaper obtained.

The Times Free Press reported this week that the overwhelming number of COVID-19 deaths have come from the state's unvaccinated population.

House Government Operations Committee Chairman John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, who has criticized the state's direct outreach to minors, stated in an email Tuesday to a woman questioning Fiscus' firing that health department information indicated eight Tennesseans under age 18 have died during the course of the pandemic.

"Moreover, only one of these deaths occurred in the 'mature minor' age range," Ragan added. "This fact translates to a COVID-19 survival rate in this group of 99.9998%. This mortality risk is about the same probability the average American has of being killed by a lightning strike," he wrote.

Ragan said that "as a result, there is a very obvious question that arises: For such a low mortality risk, why would the Department of Health's Dr. Fiscus authorize spending millions of taxpayer dollars advertising to these minors encouraging them get an emergency use authorization vaccine without parental consent?"

Ragan said employment decisions in the executive branch "are the purview of the governor and his commissioners. As a result, any objections you have to the hiring and firing of the state's chief executive and his appointees should be directed to Gov. Lee."

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