Fired Tennessee vaccine chief issues warning over the 'politicization of immunization'
Dr. Michelle Fiscus, a pediatrician, believes her dismissal was politically motivated
Tennessee's former top vaccine official says she was fired last week in order to appease Republican state lawmakers frustrated by her efforts to encourage vaccinations among teenagers.
Dr. Michelle Fiscus, a pediatrician and the former medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health, says the dismissal was politically motivated and the result of anti-vaccine misinformation campaigns.
According to Fiscus, an informational memo geared at vaccination providers that included details about the state's mature minor doctrine — a legal precedent that allows teenagers aged 14 to 17 to be vaccinated without parental consent — prompted the backlash.
Lawmakers argued Fiscus was attempting to circumvent parental decision making, which she denies.
"This politicization of immunizations, of especially COVID-19 vaccines, is creating barriers for getting people vaccinated," Fiscus told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
A spokesperson for the health department declined to comment on her termination. The Associated Press reported that Fiscus was praised for her "strong leadership" in publicly released performance reviews from as recently as last month. Republican Gov. Bill Lee defended the decision on Thursday.
Dozens of U.S. public health officials left their jobs, either voluntarily or by dismissal, between April and December 2020, according to data collected by Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press.
Political divides between lawmakers and public health officials are partly to blame, say experts.
Following her firing, Fiscus wrote an open letter July 12 in The Tennessean newspaper, warning of the erosion of public health infrastructure during a pandemic. She has since continued to speak out about her dismissal, which came at a time when the state's vaccination rate — among the lowest in the U.S. — slowed to a crawl and COVID-19 cases are once again rising.
Accusations of marketing vaccines to children
Fiscus decried that crucial outreach and messaging had been "reeled back in response to the grandstanding in the legislature."
During a June meeting, state Rep. Scott Cepicky suggested that Fiscus and her department were "peer pressuring" teenagers into getting vaccinated for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Rep. Sen. Kerry Roberts argued the department appeared to be directly "marketing" vaccinations to children through ad campaigns encouraging immunization.
Those outreach campaigns were later pulled, but on Friday, Dr. Lisa Piercey, the health department's commissioner, said the programs would be reinstated, with the exception of social media ads targeting minors.
The department will also provide vaccines to minors in the absence of parental consent in "rare circumstances."
Statistics from the health department indicate that 2.3 per cent of people aged 12 to 15, and 4.5 per cent of those aged 16 to 20, have been vaccinated as of Friday.
"School starts here in about three weeks — some schools have already gone back — and we've got children who are not going to have the remote learning options they had last year," said Fiscus.
'A bad disaster movie'
Less than 39 per cent of eligible Tennesseans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Friday. Meanwhile, the state is seeing a steep rise in new cases, due in part to the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.
State health department officials say 97 per cent of new cases are among unvaccinated individuals.
WATCH | U.S. health officials warn of a 'pandemic of the unvaccinated'
Fiscus says she is "very, very concerned" about what she expects to be a sharp uptick in positive cases.
And she worries that lawmakers in her state aren't taking the threat seriously.
"I've said to some other folks that I've spoken with, it's like they've never seen a bad disaster movie."
"When you have the asteroid or the tidal wave coming in, the scientists are saying this is coming … you need to prepare. The elected officials are ignoring [it] and kind of going about their business and then it comes crashing in."
"I think we're going to see that over the next few weeks and people are going to die needlessly."
Written by Jason Vermes with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Dr. Michelle Fiscus produced by Annie Bender.
Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.