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NASHVILLE — Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a heart-and-lung transplant surgeon who represented Tennessee for a dozen years in Washington, is calling on state government leaders to "unambiguously lead" and combat the state's low vaccination rates for the coronavirus, as well as to "stand by" science — or risk losing public trust.

In a five-tweet barrage on Friday, Frist wrote "it should be the top priority of our state's leadership to lead — to unambiguously lead each and every day — in encouraging #Covid and childhood vaccinations, especially in the midst of a pandemic where infections and new variants continue to spread."

Frist starkly stated that "Tennessee can stand by #science and #savelives, or we can further a dangerous trend that is eroding public health and trust in government."

In yet another tweet, Frist reminded the public that "it is the responsibility of our state's leaders to take sometimes uncomfortable, even unpopular, positions when the health and safety of our people are at stake." And he said the state should recognize and actively "combat the rising vaccine hesitancy and skepticism toward science that are driving down the update of lifesaving childhood vaccinations for all diseases."

Frist, who served from 1995 to 2007 in the Senate, including four years as majority leader from 2002 to 2007, issued the tweets as Republican Gov. Bill Lee faces a tsunami of national criticism following his administration's sacking last week of the Tennessee Health Department's vaccine director, Michelle Fiscus.

The pediatrician had infuriated some GOP vaccine and coronavirus skeptics in the General Assembly for a program promoting direct outreach to minors with ads encouraging them to seek coronavirus vaccinations. One Republican House member threatened to seek to dissolve the Health Department.

Health officials maintain Fiscus wasn't fired for that or related issues but other reasons. But Fiscus has said her firing did come as a result of political backlash and also charged some allegations in a memo written by a former boss are false, with the official having previously signed off on stellar evaluations of her work. Minority Democrats have sharply criticized Lee and state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey.

Nowhere in Frist's tweets does he specifically cite Fiscus' firing. Nor does he mention Lee or any of the state's leading officials by name.

When asked for the Lee administration's response to Frist's tweets, spokesman Casey Black emailed that "the Department of Health has been clear about their commitment to providing vaccine information and access to parents. There has been no disruption to these efforts."

An email from Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said that he respect's Frist's opinion and appreciates his concern.

"I encourage responsible vaccination in all cases, except when there is a sincere philosophical objection or a legitimate medical reason," the email stated. "Some legislators had an issue with some marketing materials that seemed to be discouraging parental involvement in decisions regarding vaccines. That was never the intent and the Department of Health is revising their marketing strategies. What we have seen is a shift in public relations, not mission. The Department of Health remains focused on making sure vaccines are available and accessible to those who need or want them."

Meanwhile, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said he believes there "is a difference between vaccinations for mumps, measles, polio and Covid-19. The role of government is to ensure Covid-19 vaccine availability and provide accurate, evidence-based information to parents so they can make the best decision for their children."

Frist has tweeted on at least one other occasion about the situation in his home state regarding its coronavirus response, much earlier urging a full-throated effort. But it was never in such stark language, let alone hitting the intertwining themes of political leadership and courage, which minority Democrats charge is absent here among many of their GOP colleagues.

A number of legislative Republicans are outright skeptics of the seriousness of the coronavirus. But so are many of their constituents, according to surveys. A Vanderbilt University poll released in June showed 74% of Republicans surveyed agreed with the statement that the pandemic "is largely over and things should go back to the way they were." Fourteen percent of Democrats did.

Frist noted Tennessee ranks 44th in the country in the percentage of its population fully vaccinated against the potentially deadly coronavirus COVID-19 as the new delta variant spreads, calling it "discouraging and deadly."

He added "we must also recognize, and actively combat, the rising vaccine hesitancy and skepticism toward science that are driving down the uptake of lifesaving childhood vaccinations for all diseases."

Tennessee's vaccination rate as of Saturday was 39.02%, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. According to the New York Times' website, Tennessee's coronavirus cases have soared during a two-week period ending Friday, increasing 340% to 551.

Early in the pandemic, Lee outsourced authority on mask mandates and many other restrictions to local health departments through executive orders. Some measures he took were sharply criticized by rural Republican district attorneys and later resulted in legislative hearings where some Republican lawmakers wanted to curb Lee's authority in public emergencies.

Lee, who faces re-election next year and remains popular in polls among Republicans, himself has received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. That information came out when he was asked about it by reporters.

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

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