NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's personal religious views became an obstacle in Tennessee's rollout of one of the COVID-19 vaccines, a former state health department insider claims.
The governor's office denies there was any delay in the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but Fiscus and other insiders tell a different story. They say Lee was motivated by the misconception that the J&J vaccine contained fetal tissue.
"It was a barrier to getting people vaccinated," Dr. Michelle Fiscus told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
The approval of the Johnson & Johnson, one-shot vaccine was great news for the doctor who once headed Tennessee’s vaccination program.
"It was an important tool in the arsenal, and we couldn't wait to get it," she said.
Dr. Fiscus said the J&J vaccine not only had the advantage that it didn’t require people to return for a second dose, but "it was easier."
"It's refrigerated, they didn't have to reconstitute it. It didn't have to be stored under ultra-cold refrigeration with dry ice. It had a long refrigerator life. There were a lot of advantages," Fiscus said.
But Lee put the brakes on distribution plans not long after its approval in late February, she said.
"The governor forbade us from using it in health departments," Fiscus insisted.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "So the governor put out a flat prohibition: J&J cannot be distributed through the state health departments?"
"That's right," she said.
What was her reaction?
"I was very frustrated. My first reaction was, well, we'll find other ways to get it out then, through partners, through hospitals, through federally qualified health clinics, through pharmacies," Fiscus said.
Fiscus said Lee claimed he wasn’t convinced of the effectiveness of the vaccine, but he also had concerns about the use of fetal cell lines in producing the vaccine.
"This is something that I think bothered the governor a great deal, that this particular vaccine was produced in that way," she added.
In fact, experts say the J&J vaccine does not contain fetal tissue, it does not contain fetal DNA, although – like many vaccines – it is produced using fetal cells derived from a single abortion in 1985.
"The cells that are used are decades-old cells that are the great, great, great, great, great grand-cells of those original cells. So there are no cells there that are from that original fetus," Fiscus said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "You were concerned that the governor was imposing his own religious beliefs on others?"
"I was," she agreed. "I had a problem with that being imposed upon 6.8 million Tennesseans."
The governor’s office denied that Lee's personal views ever affected the J&J vaccine's delivery.
“The state has never limited or delayed the public’s access to any of the approved COVID-19 vaccines, either in public health departments or the pharmacy partnerships that have been a part of vaccine distribution," Lee's communications director Laine Arnold said.
But two other health department insiders independently confirmed Fiscus’ account of the governor's apprehensions.
Fiscus said health department officials were eventually able to change the governor’s mind – about the time that the FDA put a 10-day nationwide pause on the vaccine to resolve safety questions.
Tennessee, she said, never recovered.
We checked the state's own data and it shows that, while Moderna represented more than 700,000 doses administered through state-run health departments through May 13 and Pfizer made up 561,000, J&J was less than 4,000.
Even now, the website vaccinefinder.org shows J&J is "out of stock" in 35 state-run health departments.
When NewsChannel 5 Investigates spot-checked with one county where the vaccine was listed as being "out of stock," we were told the one-shot vaccine was not an option through the state.
At one county listed as have it "in stock," we were told that we were "lucky" because there had been a specific request and the county placed a special order.
"We missed opportunities all over the state for people who would have been vaccinated early on had the vaccines been made available in those places -- and we don't know if those people come back," Fiscus said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates first heard this allegation a few months ago and ultimately filed a public records request for emails to try to get to the bottom of what happened.
That was almost seven weeks ago, and we're still waiting.