NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee health department officials were ordered last week not to even acknowledge that August is National Immunization Awareness Month, an email obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates reveals.
That order, given to the now-former head of the state's vaccination program, comes as Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee faces a strident revolt from hardline Republican lawmakers over the Department of Health's outreach to teens regarding the COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Michelle D. Fiscus, who was fired Monday from her position overseeing Tennessee's vaccination efforts, asked health department leaders about the department's efforts to promote immunizations.
"August is National Immunization Awareness Month and we would typically do a news release, a Governor's proclamation (in the before times) and communications out to LHDS (local health departments) and partners," Fiscus wrote in an email.
"Please let me know if we'll be permitted to acknowledge the occasion."
The department's chief medical officer, Dr. Tim Jones, was succinct in his reply
"Per the Commissioner, no outreach at all," Jones said, according to a copy of the email provided to NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
The "commissioner" is apparently Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey.
National Immunization Awareness Month, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is "an annual observance held in August to highlight the importance of vaccination for people of all ages," although such events are timed to coincide with the return to school.
Some Republican lawmakers had threatened to abolish the state Department of Health after the department had acknowledged long-standing Tennessee law known as the "mature minor doctrine."
That doctrine says providers can give "medical treatment and vaccinations to patients as young as 14 without parental consent if the individual provider determines that the patient meets the definition of a 'mature minor.'"
An internal "situation report" showed the department bowing to the lawmakers' concerns.
"Per Dr. Piercey, we may not hold any immunization events in or on school property," the report said.
"We also may not hold COVID-19 vaccine events at organizations whose clientele are solely children/adolescents."
The existence of that document was first reported by The Tennessean.
On June 25th, Fiscus asked about reminder postcards that were scheduled to go out to teens who had received a first dose of the COVID vaccine and were due to receive a second.
State epidemiologist Dr. John Dunn answered: "Hold all program communications about immunizations until further notice."
Separately, Fiscus was told that no reminders could be sent out regarding the HPV vaccine, which is designed to prevent a sexually transmitted disease.
In a written statement following her termination, Fiscus said:
"THIS is a failure of public health to protect the people of Tennessee and THAT is what is reprehensible. When the people elected and appointed to lead this state put their political gains ahead of the public good, they have betrayed the people who have trusted them with their lives."
She also spoke with NewsChannel 5 Tuesday about her termination and the department's lack of action.
"TDH leadership has responded by not only pulling back all COVID-19 vaccination events that were scheduled for adolescents, but now by ceasing all messaging around vaccines for children -- whether they are infants or people who need HPV vaccines or the 30,000 kids that are behind on measles vaccines because of the pandemic. We're not permitted to message any of that to Tennesseans, and that is a failure of public health and public health leadership.
In a statement from TDH, officials denied a plan to pause vaccination efforts for teens in the state.
"As shared previously our vaccination efforts have not been halted or shuttered. We are simply taking this time to focus on our messaging and ensure our outreach is focused on parents who are making these decisions for themselves and their families," the statement read.
Tennessee has one of the worst vaccination rates in the country. According to the Mayo Clinic vaccination tracker, it's among the bottom 10 states in the U.S. with the lowest vaccination rate.
More than 42% of Tennesseans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Davidson and Williamson Counties have passed the 50% vaccination rate ahead of the state average, but well short of the 70% herd immunity milestone.
TDH Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey told NewsChannel 5 vaccine demand among Tennesseans is low and because of that, the state is not accepting the government's full allotment of vaccine doses.