NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — As our children prepare to return to school, a former key official in the Tennessee Department of Health warns: this school year could be even worse than last year.
Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who once headed the state's vaccination efforts, tells NewsChannel 5 Investigates that she tried to get Gov. Bill Lee's attention about the real dangers to children -- and failed.
"I think we will see more children die because they are not protected with vaccines," Fiscus said. "We have a more virulent strain coming through."
Fiscus is a trained pediatrician and a mother who worries about what happens when Tennessee children return to the classroom.
"They're going to be again sitting in classrooms for seven-and-a-half, eight-hours-a-day, riding on team buses, in locker rooms, and in close quarters with one another -- with actually less protection than we had last year," she explained.
NewsChannel asked Fiscus, "What do you say to those politicians who say children have nothing to worry about?"
She answered, "Well we have a lot of data to show that that's not the case."
One of her concerns is something called multi-system inflammatory syndrome -- a condition that has hit almost 200 Tennessee children.
Just across the state line in northern Georgia, a 5-year-old boy recently died from COVID-19.
"We have one of the highest case counts of multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children in the country," Fiscus said.
"That is a severe, rare but severe, consequence of a COVID-19 illness where these children go into heart failure, renal failure, respiratory failure," the veteran pediatrician explained.
"They are in intensive care units on ventilators and on dialysis - and probably have longstanding if not permanent heart damage as a result."
One of the hardest people she’s had to convince, Fiscus said, is the governor for whom she worked until two weeks ago.
Just last week, Lee reiterated his belief that "the likelihood that children will get seriously ill is incredibly low."
"The talking points had been, 'Hey, it's not a big deal for kids,'" Fiscus recalled.
"Every week there was a governor's strategy session, so I asked to be able to present the information about children at one of the governor's strategy sessions."
Fiscus said she was scheduled to make that presentation to Lee, then it suddenly got postponed.
Again, it was scheduled -- and postponed.
"Then the third time it was going forward, I got to the room that morning and the chief operating officer of the state came in and said, 'Well, the governor's not going to be here today. So you can just go ahead and present this information to me,' which I had already presented to her," Fiscus said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Did you get the sense that he was deliberately ignoring this conversation?"
"My interpretation," she admitted, "is that he was deliberately ignoring this conversation."
Then, back in May, the governor appeared on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News, afterward proudly releasing a clip himself on his social media talking about children and COVID-19.
"I’ve said I don’t think any kid ought to wear a mask," Lee told Hannity.
"If you want to follow the science, you wouldn’t have kids in a school wearing masks -- when kids do not get sick from COVID. That’s science.”
"I was just angry, I was so angry," she recalled.
We asked, "Did your head explode at that moment?"
"Yeah, I was extraordinarily disappointed. We have a pandemic that has critically injured almost 200 children and the statement on Hannity is that children don't get COVID - and that's science? That was the furthest thing from science," she said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has now recommended that, when kids do return to school, they should all wear face masks -- regardless of their vaccination status.
Fiscus agrees, given how few children have been vaccinated in the state.
NewsChannel 5 noted, "Some of the deniers will say there have not been that many children who have died."
"You know," she responded, "to say that not that many children have died, it's not in the vernacular of a pediatrician to ever say, 'Oh, it's only 10' - or 'they all had comorbidities.' You know, we hear that a lot too. 'Oh, well, they weren't healthy children.'"
"That's heartbreaking to me that people would think, oh, because these children maybe weren't healthy to begin with that they were expendable, that it was OK that they died from a preventable disease."