Health official fired in retaliation for coronavirus vaccine guidance for teens, she says

Tennessee fired its top immunization official Monday, the official said, in retaliation for her attempts to let teenagers choose whether to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.

Michelle Fiscus said she was fired from her job as director of immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health on Monday afternoon as retaliation for the department’s efforts to vaccinate teenagers against the coronavirus, a plan that angered several state lawmakers. “This is about a partisan issue around covid vaccines and around people in power in Tennessee not believing in the importance in vaccinating the people, and so they terminated the person in charge of getting it done,” Fiscus told The Washington Post on Monday evening. “The government is sacrificing public health to be in the good graces of our legislators; it’s a horrid dereliction of duty,” she said.

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According to Fiscus, lawmakers took offense when she sent a memo in which she explained to medical providers the state’s “Mature Minor Doctrine,” a legal mechanism by which they are allowed to inoculate minors 14 and above without consent from their parents.

The details of the Mature Minor Doctrine, which was established in 1987, are publicly available on the health department’s website.

Fiscus said the language in the letter was provided to her by the health department’s attorney, who told her at the time that it had been approved by the governor’s office and that she was allowed to share it with anyone.

A recipient of that memo posted it to social media, upset that, according to Tennessee Supreme Court case law, people ages 14 and older are able to receive medical care without parental consent.

Within days, legislators were asking the health department about the memo, with some interpreting it as an attempt to undermine parental authority, Fiscus said.

Bill Christian, a spokesperson for the health department, said the agency would not comment on the termination.

Fiscus said she was a “bargaining chip” between Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey and lawmakers who oppose coronavirus vaccinations.

Fiscus said her termination reflects Tennessee’s deep and widespread anti-vaccine attitude that is imperiling its residents.

On Thursday, the department reported 3,214 active cases of the coronavirus, 561 new cases and 176 hospitalizations. About 12,600 people in Tennessee have died of covid-19, the illness that can be caused by the novel coronavirus, the department reported. Cases of the highly contagious delta variant rose from 27 on June 24 to 125 Thursday.

Fiscus said that she is one of many state or territorial immunization program directors to leave their position during the pandemic, and that health professionals have been “vilified” by a public “who chooses not to believe in science, and elected and appointed officials who have put their own self-interest above the people they were chosen to represent and protect.”

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During a hearing of the legislature’s Joint Government Operations Committee on June 16, several Republican lawmakers criticized Fiscus.

State Sen. Janice Bowling (R) said the state was overstepping and “misjudging” its legal authority, and she urged Piercey to “back off” the “misapplication” of the doctrine and take action to “remove the fear, the concerns and the anger that has gone across the state as a result of [Fiscus’s] letter.”

“It is very disconcerting to see the letter, or memo, from Dr. Fiscus stating that Tennessee law allows the department of health to give vaccinations to children 14 years of age,” Bowling said. “Tennessee law does not allow that.”

State Rep. Scott Cepicky (R) criticized the health department for “targeting” the “impressionable youth” with advertising that promotes vaccination for teenagers, which he deemed “reprehensible.” Cepicky had recently made a motion to dismantle the health department over the same issue.

Bowling and Cepicky did not immediately responded to requests for comment Monday night.

Since the June hearing, according to the Tennessean, the health department has backed down from its efforts to vaccinate minors, halting outreach activities to teenagers and deleting announcements on social media that recommended the vaccines to anyone over 12.

Fiscus condemned the state leaders “who have put their heads in the sand and denied the existence of covid-19 or who thought they knew better than the scientists who have spent their lives working to prevent disease … who have ignored the dead and dying surrounding them,” she said.

“I am ashamed of them. I am afraid for my state,” she added.