Gov. Bill Lee defends agency's vaccine chief firing, outreach rollback

Wants Tennesseans to make 'personal decision' on vaccine
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Posted at 8:49 AM, Jul 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-22 14:32:15-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF/AP) — Gov. Bill Lee spoke to reporters Thursday ahead of today's vote to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the State Capitol. It also marked his first availability since the state's top vaccine official was fired last week.

During today's media availability, Lee encouraged Tennesseans to get vaccinated, calling it the "most effective tool" to manage COVID-19. He also encouraged residents to talk to their doctors or clergy if they have vaccine hesitancy.

Chief Investigative Reporter Phil Williams asked Lee if he shared some of the responsibility for the state's low vaccination numbers, citing the governor's comments in September 2020 that he would have to talk to his doctor first before getting the vaccine. Lee did receive the vaccine but did so in private.

"Do you bear some of the responsibility for the hesitancy that's out there and do you have regrets," NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the governor.

However, Lee deflected, instead saying it's the responsibility of the government to encourage Tennesseans to get the vaccine and provide information to make that decision.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates again asked Lee if he has any responsibilities or regrets when it comes to vaccine hesitancy among Tennesseans and he responded, "I do, I have a responsibility to stand before the press and encourage Tennesseans to get a vaccine."

Watch Phil Williams' Q&A with Gov. Bill Lee below:

Lee also defended his administration’s firing of vaccination chief Dr. Michelle Fiscus and the rollback of outreach for childhood vaccines. Fiscus has repeatedly said she was terminated to appease some GOP lawmakers who were outraged over state outreach for COVID-19 vaccinations to minors.

Lee sidestepped direct questions on why Fiscus was fired, saying Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey never disclosed those reasons to him.

In response to the governor's comments, Dr. Michelle Fiscus released the following statement:

"I am dismayed by the continued complacency of the administration during this pandemic. Our border states of Missouri and Arkansas are suffering greatly, and we have already seen the start of the next surge in Tennessee. While Arkansas Governor Hutchinson is setting vaccination goals, asking employers to encourage vaccination in the workplace, and talking about individual responsibility, Governor Lee’s continued mantra is that of “personal choice”. Yes, the COVID-19 vaccine is the best tool we have, but like any good tool, it’s only effective when used.

I was terminated for trying to protect Tennesseans from dying from a vaccine-preventable disease. Governor Lee should be sending a strong message that Tennesseans need to get protected, just like he is, with a safe and effective vaccine."

Lee's comments today came shortly before the State Building Commission voted 5-2 to move the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest out of the Capitol building. Lee also cast a vote for its removal.