NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee was in damage-control mode Thursday, insisting his administration is not against vaccines.
It comes some 10 days since the head of the state's vaccination program was fired amid an uproar over efforts to encourage teens to get vaccinated for COVID-19.
"I want to say today and I want to continue to say that the number one tool that we have to manage COVID-19, including the delta variant, is the vaccine," Lee said in his first news conference since the firing of Dr. Michelle Fiscus and the decision to cancel any type of vaccine outreach that appeared to be aimed at kids.
It was a controversy that made national news and the late-night talk shows.
Stephen Colbert quipped, "The Volunteer State has one of the worst vaccination rates in the country, and they aim to keep it that way."
His show aired a spoof tourism commercial that mocked a lack of interest in stopping the spread of contagious diseases.
"Visit Graceland, and then Mumpland," the narrator said, concluding: "Tennessee: the last place you'll ever visit."
The governor made no apologies.
"Our department and the leadership made the decisions that they think we're in the best interest, and I fully support those decisions," Lee said.
While conservative lawmakers had blamed health department officials, Fiscus says every one of those messages came straight out of the governor's office.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Lee, "Why have you not stepped up and accepted responsibility, instead of letting Department of Health career employees take the brunt of this?"
The governor responded, "I'll be very clear: We should in no way be messaging to children."
We followed up, "Did your office approve those messages, sir?"
"I did not approve the messages," Lee answered.
But what about his office or his communications team?
"I can't speak, I don't know what the interaction was there," Lee claimed.
As for how far he's willing to go to promote the COVID vaccines, the governor said there are limits.
"Our role is not to coerce or require or mandate," he said. "The right role of government, in my view, is to provide access to it and to encourage it."
In response, Dr. Fiscus released a statement, decrying what she sees as Lee's "complacency," saying he should look to Arkansas's Republican governor who has launched an aggressive campaign to tell his residents that the COVID vaccine is their only hope for saving lives and getting back to normal.
COVID-19 IN TENESSEE
Tennessee has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nationwide, 55.7% of Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 48.2% have received two. In Tennessee, only 42.6% of residents have received at least one dose and 38.2% are fully vaccinated.
TDH Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said in June that demand for the vaccine in Tennessee was so low, the state is not accepting its full allotment of vaccine doses.
According to the CDC, new cases in the state have been on the rise in recent weeks, with the rate of new cases per 100,000 residents up 191% from the week prior.
As of July 14, there have been a total of 872,362 cases reported in the state and 12,625 residents have died from COVID-19.