Both the Hamilton County Health Department and the city of Chattanooga are continuing to advocate for childhood vaccinations, including the COVID-19 vaccine, despite the Tennessee Department of Health's recent decision to halt all youth vaccine outreach and fire its immunization programs director amid political pressure.
In a Monday email, the Tennessee Department of Health's chief medical officer instructed county-level staff to conduct "no proactive outreach regarding routine vaccines" and to strip the state's logo from any vaccine-related materials, according to a news article in The Tennessean of Nashville.
Routine childhood vaccines protect youth and their peers against 16 different preventable diseases that can be serious or even deadly, such as measles, mumps, tetanus, pertussis and polio. Promoting such vaccines has long been a key mission of the department.
In April, the Tennessee Department of Health issued a news release urging parents to get their kids caught up on their routine vaccines and checkups, stating that "there are thousands of children in Tennessee who are behind on vaccinations because of the pandemic."
"It is critical that all children are up-to-date with their childhood vaccinations so they are protected and so that Tennessee avoids additional disease outbreaks," Dr. Lisa Piercey, state health commissioner, stated in the release.
The policy change and firing came two weeks after some Republican state legislators blistered the state department over vaccine communications — including a photo of a child with a Band-Aid on his arm, saying, "Tennesseans 12+ are eligible for vaccines. Give COVID-19 vaccines a shot." — and a 34-year-old, rarely invoked state statute that allows minors as young as 14 to be vaccinated without parental consent.
But childhood vaccination efforts, including for those who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, are alive and well in Chattanooga.
On Wednesday, the Hamilton County Health Department issued a news release inviting families of school-age children to participate in back-to-school vaccination and birth certificate events at the health department starting July 19 through Aug. 13.
"Routine childhood vaccinations are an important way to ensure that your child and community remain healthy and protected against serious diseases, like measles and whooping cough," Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes said in the news release. "We encourage parents to make sure children are up to date on routinely recommended vaccines and take advantage of our back-to-school events."
The Hamilton County Health Department is one of six metro health departments that operate independently of the Tennessee Department of Health. However, Hamilton County has typically followed the state's lead when it comes to major policy decisions.
Chattanooga city government also recently joined the COVID-19 vaccination effort about a month ago through its new Office of Community Health, which was formed after Mayor Tim Kelly took office in April.
The city is hosting "pop-up" COVID-19 vaccine events from 10 a.m. to noon and 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. each Wednesday at different community centers across town. The events allow participants to choose the Moderna, Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
"We have gotten some younger children, because Pfizer is now approved for 17- to 12-year-olds, and there's work ongoing — clinical trials and such — to determine whether we will be able to approve vaccination of children 11 and younger," said Mary Lambert, director of the Chattanooga Office of Community Health.
Parental consent is always required in order for children to be vaccinated at the community centers, Lambert said, but part of the rationale behind hosting the events there is because those centers are places where children gather.
"[It's] to take advantage of the opportunity to provide information about the virus, information about the vaccine, and then share that information with their parents," she said. "We've had families, parents coming in with the child to give authorization and then they've not been vaccinated, and so they have their vaccination as well. For those young people and their parents to get vaccinated — that's a huge win, because that's a whole household."
Lambert, a public health veteran who over her career worked at both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, said parental vaccine hesitancy is a longstanding challenge.
"There's always going to be that element. I think it's a little bit more so surrounding COVID vaccination. We're in the midst of a pandemic, and we've got all this information going out that's not necessarily accurate," she said. "It does take a persistent education effort and messaging, and messages from trusted sources."
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