NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A former Tennessee health department insider is speaking out about the Lee administration's no-bid contract for COVID-19 testing -- and how it almost led her to resign.
Dr. Michelle Fiscus said that, when questions were raised about the reliability of the company's COVID tests, Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey suggested using it "in a healthier population, like college kids."
That $26.5 million deal, awarded to a politically connected company over the objections of career state employees, was first exposed by NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
"I think everyone was pretty shocked when they found out that the contract was all but sealed," Fiscus said in an exclusive interview with NewsChannel 5.
Watch at 10 p.m.: Did the health commissioner mislead state lawmakers?
Fiscus, as one of the leaders of Tennessee’s pandemic response, was there in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak when Utah businessman Mark Newman decided that his company, Nomi Health, would try to do COVID-19 testing – with no experience.
She described the red flags:
"Unproven company dropping equipment off at the lab that the lab didn't vet, I think just a lack of understanding about what a lab of that quality has to go through to prove that the testing that it's doing is reliable."
As our investigation first revealed, a Republican political consultant out of Atlanta had contacted the governor’s chief of staff, who put him in touch with Commissioner Piercey.
Piercey quickly signed the deal.
Fiscus said that, during one of Nomi’s first presentations to Tennessee’s own testing experts, the person leading the charge stumbled.
"He eventually said, 'Well, you know, we've only been doing this about four weeks. I'm actually a Ring doorbell guy,'" she recalled.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "A Ring doorbell guy?"
"A Ring doorbell guy," Fiscus acknowledged, "and that he was new to this whole testing thing, he was trying to learn as quickly as he could."
Questions were already surfacing around the country about the reliability of the tests Nomi was selling.
Fiscus texted her boss: “I spent 3.5 hours on the phone with Nomi today. We have got to get this contract canceled. It’s a disaster.”
"That is not a statement that I would be so bold as to say very frequently," the doctor told NewsChannel 5.
"I was very, very alarmed."
Her text continued: “The optics of doing this are going to be horrible when we start testing minority populations with substandard testing… We have got to stop this.”
Fiscus said she and others warned Commissioner Piercey that Nomi’s tests were likely to produce a lot of false-negative results.
"And I said, 'we cannot be implementing this test when we are testing in HUD housing and low-income housing and in minority populations,'" Fiscus continued.
"And she [Piercey] said on the phone to me, 'I wouldn't suggest that you use it in those populations, use it in a healthier population like college kids.'"
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "And you have kids in college."
"She has college kids," the doctor continued.
"I was appalled."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates reached out to Piercey's office, and they did not deny that she made the comment about potentially using the Nomi tests on college students.
"I felt that there were so many things that were compromising my own personal ethics," Fiscus said.
For example, while Nomi’s contract required it to send personal protective equipment to the state, our investigation discovered it sent breeders’ gloves instead of medical gloves.
It sent wipes that were labeled “not appropriate for disinfecting from coronavirus.”
And their N-95 masks were knock-offs, some with visible holes in them.
"Then when we raised concerns with Dr. Piercey, the response we got was, 'You're too rigid, they're thinking out of the box... and just because they aren’t what you’re used to in medicine doesn’t mean they’re not right,'" Fiscus recalled.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked her, "At some point, did you consider quitting?"
"I did - over this," she acknowledged.
In the end, an extensive study by the state’s health laboratory concluded they had “no confidence" in the reliability of the Nomi Test and, as a result, “we cannot endorse the use of the Nomi test system for COVID-19.”
Piercey finally agreed to cancel the contract, although she still paid Nomi almost $6 million to get out of the contract.
Fiscus said it should have never taken that long.
"She was going to put everything out to make sure that this contract went through and was successful - and it didn't matter that the test was garbage, that the PPE was garbage. It was a $26 million contract - none of that mattered. None of that mattered," she said.
In the end, because of the stubborn persistence of Dr. Fiscus and other career professionals in the health department, the Nomi test was never used on any Tennesseans.