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Tennessee Republicans take sides in COVID debate, as doctors struggle to be heard

Tennessee State Capitol Dome.jpeg
Posted at 1:06 PM, Jul 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-28 19:42:42-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee Republicans are now taking sides in the debate over science and COVID-19.

One group is warning school systems not to impose mask requirements on children returning to class, while another is now telling their followers that getting vaccinated is the right thing to do.

On the House side, 12 conservative Republicans just sent a letter to every one of Tennessee's school systems, warning them not to require face masks or proof of vaccination.

"The legislature has not granted any authority to local school boards or superintendents to require face-coverings or promulgate any rules related to ... the prevention of communicable diseases," said the letter drafted by Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris.

On the Senate side, half of the Republican Caucus signed a letter, encouraging Tennesseans to get vaccinated.

Among those signing the Senate letter was Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, who is a pharmacist.

"This should not be political," the letter said. "Every life lost to this virus is tragic. The COVID-19 vaccines save lives."

For the doctors on the forefront against COVID, the battle between science and politics has been frustrating.

"I don't change the oil in my car because I am not trained to do that," said Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who headed the state vaccination efforts until two weeks ago.

"Yet, in these cases where we are really talking about life and death, some legislators have no qualms about publicly expressing their opinions about how people should be treated medically. Isn't it practicing without a license?"

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Dr. Michelle Fiscus talks with Phil Williams

Fiscus was referring to a legislative hearing in June when conservative lawmakers became enraged over Department of Health images showing teens looking happy after having received a COVID vaccine.

Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, held up one of the promotional images.

"When you have advertisements like this with a young girl with a patch on her arm, all smiling, we know how impressionable our young people are," the Maury County Republican argued.

Even more troublesome was when Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, who suggested that perhaps a vaccine wasn’t even needed.

"We have almost, it seems, have reached herd immunity, vaccination immunity, whatever," Bowling suggested.

Fiscus' response: "We are not at herd immunity, obviously. We have mounting cases."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the doctor, "What was your reaction to hearing a politician lecture about medicine?"

"We hear that a lot," Fiscus responded.

Bowling even suggested some remedies that, in her opinion, were just as good as vaccines.

"D3, zinc, you know, ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine -- there are other things available that people are choosing to use other than the shot," the Coffee County Republican said.

Fiscus was not impressed with Bowling's medical knowledge.

"She's willing to accept non-FDA-approved treatments that have been shown to not be effective, but will object to a vaccine that's been used in hundreds of millions of people in the United States now effectively that is approved or has authorization under FDA EUA and has imminent full FDA approval," she continued.

"I find that very ironic."

The letter from Senate leadership struck a much different tone from Bowling.

“Vaccines have been saving lives for over a century, ” it continued. “The COVID-19 vaccines were developed utilizing high standards and the best medical technology available.”

As for Dr Fiscus’ future, she denied speculation that she might have an interest in politics herself.

"I am a pediatrician, I am a physician," she said. " I know enough to know where my lane is, where my expertise is.

"I think, putting up people who are not qualified for the job is how we got where we are. I don’t know anything about taxes or infrastructure or revenue or labor.

"I know medicine. And I’m going to stay in my lane."

Fiscus said she's not sure exactly what her next step will be, although she hopes to remain involved in the type of public health work in which she was engaged before getting caught in the political crossfire.

Related stories:

Former TN vaccine official describes health department 'gagged' by 'hesitant' governor

Former insider describes frustrations with TN governor over kids and COVID

Former insider says she almost quit over Lee administration's controversial COVID testing contract

Did health commissioner mislead state lawmakers?

Special Section: COVID Investigations