NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A record of missed opportunities!
That's how a former insider describes Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's handling of the rollout for the COVID-19 vaccine.
In an exclusive interview, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the former head of Tennessee's vaccination program, described a governor who wasn't so sure about vaccines himself and who insisted that his office control all communications about the virus.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Did you feel like you were gagged?"
"Yes," Fiscus answered, "I feel like the department was gagged."
For 16 months, Fiscus was on the front lines of Gov. Lee’s response to the deadly COVID-19 outbreak, charged with making sure Tennesseans got the life-saving vaccines that could bring an end to the pandemic.
But, she said, it wasn’t easy.
"To be repeatedly told, no, you won't talk about it, you won't message it, you won't provide strong recommendations, you won't share CDC-created materials, it’s demoralizing, it's frustrating, it's so incredibly wrong, it's malpractice," Fiscus said.
Two weeks ago, Fiscus was fired after a conservative backlash against the Tennessee Department of Health’s efforts to make sure that teens got the vaccine -- all coming as the devastating delta variant is now sweeping the state.
"Unfortunately, we're trying to protect a people that aren't all that interested in being protected from themselves," she said.
Right now, less than 40% of all Tennesseans are fully vaccinated, much of it due to resistance from rural, white conservatives.
That means some four million people are still at risk.
Fiscus says Lee didn’t help when he was asked back in September whether he planned to get the vaccine himself.
His answer: "I'll do what I think every Tennessean ought to do and determine if they believe it's a safe and effective vaccine and then talk to my doctor about it."
"It wasn't 'absolutely because this is the tool we have to stop a pandemic, absolutely as the leader in this state I'm going to lead by example and I’m going to go get this vaccine.'"
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Did you ever get the sense that the governor was an anti-vaxxer?"
"I would not go so far as to say that the governor is an anti-vaxxer, no," Fiscus responded.
"I think that the governor has a lot of hesitancy around vaccines."
While the Lee administration eventually launched an extensive campaign for face masks, Fiscus said she began pushing the governor last fall for a similar effort to get the public excited about the upcoming vaccines.
"So it's not 'hey, the vaccine is here.' it's 'hey, the vaccine is coming and this is what's going to get us out of here, this is what's going to get us back to the lives that we love.'"
What did Lee say?
"He didn't," Fiscus said. "He never responded. He never said no, he never said yes."
NewsChannel 5 noted, "So by not saying yes, he was essentially saying no?"
"Right," she agreed. "I mean, inaction is just as loud as taking action."
Another health department insider agreed.
"There was nothing," the person told NewsChannel 5 Investigates. "There was just no assistance with communicating - from the governor or from our legislators."
Then, the governor’s office produced a website saying, "Tennesseans are encouraged to discuss with their doctor if the vaccine is right for them."
"Like this is an anti-fungal cream or reflux medicine -- instead of the only opportunity we have to prevent a disease that is pandemic and killing Tennesseans," Fiscus added.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "In your opinion, that conveyed some hesitancy on its own?"
"Oh, absolutely, absolutely."
And while other governors got their COVID-19 vaccines in public to set the example, Lee said he got his – but it was in private.
"That was a huge missed opportunity," said the doctor who once headed the state's vaccination efforts.
Would it have made a difference?
"It's hard to imagine that there wouldn't have been some people who align with the governor, who wouldn't have said, 'OK, the governor did it, the governor is asking me to do it, I should go do it.'"
Appearing before lawmakers on March 24, Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey downplayed concerns about Tennessee’s lagging vaccination rate – and the lack of pro-vaccine advertising.
But two days earlier, inside the state health department, alarm bells were already sounding.
“We need this media campaign NOW, not mid April,” Piercey’s chief medical officer Tim Jones texted, suggesting: “celebrities promoting, sports players, musicians."
He added, “In 3 weeks, it’s going to turn into ‘please take the leftovers no one else wants.'”
In fact, the state would end up with millions of doses of vaccine with no takers.
Fiscus responded to the text: "Maddening."
Piercey’s response: “Devil’s advocate – do you really think there are a ton of people who are hesitant now, but once they see a mass-produced state government commercial will suddenly say, ‘Oh! NOW I will go get a vaccine…’?”
Fiscus said she couldn't believe the commissioner's reaction.
"We already knew that people weren't coming to get the vaccine - with no advertising - and since CDC was giving us millions of dollars to do advertising and do a pro-vaccine, vaccine hesitancy campaign, it was kind of like to us: what was there to lose?"
As for the governor, he has refused to accept any responsibility for Tennessee having one of the worst vaccination rates in the country.
"What we believe to be a success from the administrative perspective is that we have access and that everyone can get one," Lee told NewsChannel 5 Investigates on June 30.
More than six months after vaccinations began in Tennessee, those televisions ads are finally airing.
But Fiscus wonders: at what cost?
"We lost lives that didn't need to be lost. We're going to lose more that don't need to be lost. I don't know how people can sleep at night, I really don't."