NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A group of Tennessee physicians is calling for an independent investigation by the Justice Department into the firing of the state's top vaccination official and Gov. Bill Lee's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a letter to the Justice Department, the group Protect My Care accuses Lee of "reckless misconduct and abuse of his office," saying in part that he undermined public health professionals, leading to the "avoidable spread of COVID-19."
“Over the last year, Governor Lee has continued to reject the advice of health experts which has prolonged the COVID crisis and brought us entirely avoidable school and business closures and avoidable hospitalizations and deaths," said Dr. Jason Martin, a critical care physician. "Bill Lee’s misconduct , suppressing vital, life-saving public health guidance and now the political firing of a state health employee for doing her job, endangers Tennessean’s lives, threatens our state’s recovery and will result in more avoidable hospitalizations and deaths and he must be investigated, and held accountable.”
Read the full letter below:
"Dear Justice Department:
No matter where we live, the color of our skin, or our politics, we have seen over the last year how the health of one person affects the health of the person next to them and the person next to that person.
Instead of going all in for all of us so that we could get through COVID together, Governor Lee has continued to reject the advice of health experts, prolonging the COVID-19 crisis and leading to entirely avoidable school and business closures, and entirely avoidable hospitalizations and deaths.
Governor Bill Lee should be investigated by an independent counsel for his reckless misconduct and mismanagement of Tennessee’s response to COVID-19.
Now, as most of the country successfully increases vaccinations, aiding their own economic recovery while protecting the most vulnerable, Bill Lee is further politicizing the health crisis and endangering Tennessean lives and jobs.
Tennessee now lags the country in vaccinations, as the dangerous “Delta” variant spreads and school reopening approaches. Instead of doing his part to help schools reopen safely, Bill Lee has suppressed public health guidance from the CDC and fired the state's lead physician, Dr. Michelle Fiscus simply for doing her job educating the public on vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health.
This extremist partisan attack on public health and safety must be investigated."
Dr. Fiscus had recently come under fire from Republican state lawmakers over the Tennessee Department of Health's outreach efforts to vaccinate teenagers against COVID-19. She sent a memo with information on the Mature Minor Doctrine, case law that allows doctors to treat teenage patients without parental consent.
"I had medical providers asking what to do if someone under age presented themselves for COVID-19 vaccine if they could provide it or not," she said in an interview with NewsChannel 5's Kyle Horan.
State lawmakers took issue with the memo, with State Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) saying the doctrine wasn't in the code and had no power.
"It's very disconcerting to see the memo, the letter from Dr. Fiscus stating that Tennessee law allows the department of health to give vaccinations to children 14-years of age," Bowling said during a committee meeting on June 16.
Dr. Fiscus believes she was fired to appease lawmakers.
The week prior to her termination, emails obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, show TDH officials were ordered to not even acknowledge that August is National Immunization Awareness Month.
During the month, Dr. Fiscus says TDH typically sends out a news release, a Governor's proclamation and communicates with local health departments and partners. But this year, TDH officials were told there will be no outreach at all.
TDH released a statement denying that the department plans to pause vaccination efforts.
"As shared previously our vaccination efforts have not been halted or shuttered. We are simply taking this time to focus on our messaging and ensure our outreach is focused on parents who are making these decisions for themselves and their families," the statement read.
Some lawmakers threatened to abolish TDH after it acknowledged the Mature Minor Doctrine. Communications within TDH show the department bowing to lawmakers' concerns, stating TDH will not hold any immunizations events on school property or hold COVID-19 vaccine events at organizations that solely work with children and adolescents.
COVID-19 in Tennessee
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.
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, according to the CDC.
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.