The state fired Tennessee’s top immunization official on Monday, Tennessee Brett Kelman reports. Michelle Fiscus, medical director of vaccine preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Department of Health, said her termination letter gave no reason for her termination.
Fiscus told the newspaper she had become a scapegoat for the wrath of conservative lawmakers over the department’s efforts to vaccinate teens against COVID-19.
“It was my job to provide evidence-based education and access to vaccines so Tennesseans could protect themselves against COVID-19,” Fiscus told the newspaper in a statement. “I have now been fired for doing just that. “
There is a political undercurrent to the dismissal. Fiscus’ husband Brad ran as an independent candidate against State Representative Glen Casada (R-Franklin) in last year’s election, finishing third. Many of the lawmakers most upset with the state’s vaccination efforts were staunch supporters of Casada’s truncated presidency, which collapsed in 2019 amid a racist and sexist text messaging scandal and complaints about an authoritarian leadership style.
Casada, who played a key role in passing Governor Bill Lee’s 2019 Learning Bonds Act, was one of three sitting lawmakers to have their homes and offices searched by federal agents. in January. No charges were laid in the investigation.
Today, I became the 25th of 64 state and territory immunization program directors to step down during this pandemic. That’s almost 40% of us. And with our resignations or retirements or, as in my case, surges of power, goes the institutional knowledge and leadership of our respective COVID-19 vaccine responses. I will not stand idly by as our public health infrastructure erodes in the midst of a pandemic.
We are a group of dedicated public health professionals who have worked countless hours to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines, the ONLY tool we have to effectively end the scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic, at the disposition of every person in our jurisdictions. Along the way, we have been denigrated, degraded, accused and at times vilified by a public that chooses not to believe in science, and elected and appointed officials who put their own interests above the people they were chosen to represent and protect.
On May 6, 2021, before the approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for 12-15 year olds and in response to several questions I had received regarding the rules regarding the vaccination of minors, I contacted the Advocate General of Tennessee Department of Health. to seek a statement regarding the mature minor doctrine of Tennessee that resulted from a decision of the Tennessee Supreme Court in Cardwell vs. Bechtol in 1987.
In response, I received a document attached to an email saying, “Of course, attached is the new Doctrine Summary which has just been posted to the website and which is blessed by the Office of the governor on the subject. This is forward facing, so feel free to distribute it to anyone.
On May 10, 2021, I copied and pasted the language provided to me in a note that was only distributed to providers who administer the COVID-19 vaccines. One recipient of this memo was upset that, according to Tennessee Supreme Court case law, minors between the ages of 14 and 17 can receive medical treatment in Tennessee without parental consent and has released the memo on social networks. Within days, lawmakers contacted TDH to ask questions about the note, with some interpreting it as an attempt to undermine parental authority.
Let’s be clear: this was a briefing note containing language approved by the General Counsel’s Office of TDH that was sent to medical providers by the medical director of the state immunization program regarding the safeguards put in place 34 years ago by the Tennessee Supreme Court around the provision of care. to minors.
What happened between the publication of this memo and today, when I was fired from my position as medical director of the immunization and vaccine-preventable diseases program at the Tennessee Department of Health, cannot to be described only as weird.
On May 19, TDH was invited to appear before the Government Operations Committee over concerns that the memo would be “a little pushing or encouraging to vaccinate children without parental consent.” This was followed by a series of requests from Committee members for data on the impact of COVID-19 on children and a request to appear before the Committee again on June 16.
It was during this meeting on June 16 that the Ministry was accused of “targeting” young people via Facebook messaging and its actions were qualified as “reprehensible” by a member of the Committee. This member then called for the “dissolution and reconstitution” of the Ministry of Health in the midst of a pandemic where one in 542 Tennesseans died from COVID-19 under his surveillance and less than 38% of Tennesséens were vaccinated.
This digital leaflet, which was once part of the Tennessee Department of Health’s immunization awareness campaign, disappeared from the agency’s website after some conservative lawmakers accused the agency of pressuring minors.
It is the mission of the Tennessee Department of Health to “protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of the people of Tennessee” and to protect them from the deadliest infectious disease in over 100 years IS our work. It is the most important job we have had in recent history. Specifically, it was MY job to provide evidence-based education and access to vaccines so Tennesseans could protect themselves against COVID-19. I have now been fired for doing just that.
Each of us should wake up each morning with a question in mind, “What can I do to protect the people of Tennessee from COVID-19?” Instead, our leaders are putting up barriers to make sure Tennessee residents remain at risk, even with the delta variant weighing us down.
In addition, the leadership of the Tennessee Department of Health responded to the Government Operations Committee’s slash by stopping ALL vaccination campaigns for children. Not just COVID-19 vaccine awareness for teens, but ALL communication around vaccines of any kind. No back-to-school message to the more than 30,000 parents who did not have their children vaccinated against measles last year due to the pandemic. No message about the human papillomavirus vaccine to residents of the state with one of the highest HPV cancer rates in the country. No observations of National Immunization Awareness Month in August. No reminder to parents of adolescents who are late in receiving their second COVID-19 vaccine. THIS is a public health failure to protect the people of Tennessee and THAT is what is “wrong.” When those elected and appointed to the head of this state put their political gains above the public good, they have betrayed the people who entrusted their lives to them.
I was told I should have been more “politically aware” and “pushed the bear” when I sent a note to medical providers clarifying a 34-year-old Tennessee Supreme Court decision . I am not a political agent, I am a doctor who was, until today, responsible for protecting the people of Tennessee, including their children, against preventable diseases like COVID-19.
I was fired for doing my job because some of our politicians joined the anti-vaccine disinformation campaign rather than taking the time to speak with medical experts. They believe what they choose to believe rather than what is factual and evidence-based. And it is the people of Tennessee who will suffer the consequences of the actions of the very people they have put in power.
Public health professionals from the Tennessee Department of Health have worked to exhaustion to protect Tennessee from this virus. They are heroes. They have avoided suffering and saved countless lives. They are to be honored and praised, not cursed and vilified. And the “leaders” of this state who put their heads in the sand and denied the existence of COVID-19 or who thought they knew better than the scientists who spent their lives working to prevent disease … who ignored the dead and the dying around them – even when their own colleagues fought for their lives – they are what is “wrong”.
I am ashamed of them. I’m afraid for my condition. I am angry with the amazing people in the Tennessee Department of Health who have been abused by an uneducated public and leaders who have their own best interests in mind. And I am deeply saddened for the people of Tennessee, who will continue to fall ill and die from this vaccine-preventable disease because they choose to listen to the nonsense spread by the ignorant.
At this point, you will get the vaccine or you will get sick. Yes, not getting the vaccine is a personal choice. It is true that you are likely to survive COVID-19. It is 1 in 542 people around you who will suffer the consequences of an unfortunate decision to remain vulnerable to this horrible disease.
God bless the people of Tennessee.