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NASHVILLE — Top Tennessee House Republican leaders are calling on Gov. Bill Lee to block state health officials from distributing, promoting or recommending COVID-19 vaccinations for children younger than 5 until more clinical evidence becomes available.

Rep. Jason Zachary, a Knoxville Republican and coronavirus vaccine skeptic, was joined in the letter sent Wednesday to the governor by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and GOP Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, of Cosby.

The letter comes after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week authorized both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccines for babies, toddlers and preschoolers under 5.

"We simply cannot recommend injecting an mRNA vaccine into children who have never been at serious risk from death or hospitalization from COVID-19," says the letter to Lee, a Republican. "We do not know the short-term and long-term impact on their development and overall health. As always, parents should seek consultation and recommendation from their family pediatrician about what is best for their child's health.

(READ MORE: Child under 5 dies in Hamilton County, first pediatric death here)

"We look forward to your engagement and response as we look to lead Tennessee forward and serve our fellow Tennesseans," the lawmakers added.

Asked for the governor's reaction, Lee press secretary Casey Black said in a statement to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, "We have received the letter."

Last year, Zachary and a group of other House and Senate Republicans became outraged over state Health Department officials using advertising to encourage teens to get inoculated against COVID-19. During one hearing, a Republican lawmaker threatened to abolish the health department.

It later led to the firing of Tennessee's top vaccination chief, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, which in turn generated concerns from physicians, public health officials and Democratic lawmakers. Fiscus, who was given a choice between being fired or resigning, later filed a federal lawsuit against the state and then-Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey and Chief Medical Officer Tim Jones, alleging her reputation was deliberately and publicly smeared because of the messaging to teens, noting that Jones had recently given her a glowing grade on her work.

Her firing also resulted in the department backing off for some time in promoting other vaccinations. Democrats at the time sharply criticized Lee.

The uproar also helped fuel efforts by Republican lawmakers to call themselves into special session — Lee opted not to call a session — where they enacted new laws and restrictions on the governor's powers during a pandemic as well as on COVID-19 measures imposed by local governments, schools and businesses.

Mask mandates were largely prohibited except for businesses, which fought a pitched battle to be excluded. But vaccine requirements were done away with.

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, voiced dismay over House GOP leaders' letter to Lee.

"Lord have mercy," Hakeem said in a phone interview. "Unfortunately, it appears that [Zachary] is refusing to take the science seriously. Children are impacted by COVID. Maybe the numbers aren't the same as adults, but to lessen the transmission to everyone, because of the science, I didn't see this as a problem.

"We know that parents are going to make the final decision," Hakeem added. "It's unfortunate there's an effort to get into the homes of individuals in this manner. I think they could leave well enough alone and take a deep breath and attempt to listen to the science and let parents make that decision."

The Tennessee Department of Health tracks ages of patients in 10-year increments, so there is no data specifically on patients under 5. According to the department, there have been 188,000 COVID-19 cases for patients ages 0-10. That's 9% of cases during the pandemic. Fourteen people in that age range have died, less than one-tenth of 1% of the 26,500 deaths. 

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

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