Former top state vaccine official says politics led to her firing

MEMPHIS, TENN. — Speaking in her first interview in western Tennessee, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the now former head of the state department of health’s vaccine program alleges her termination this week was weeks in the making.

Dr. Michelle Fiscus said in an interview with FOX13 investigates that she fired this week from her job as the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health for what she said amounts to doing her job.

Her firing comes as the delta variant threatens to ignite a new resurgence of COVID-19 infections in Tennessee.

The health department, in response to questions from FOX13 Investigates, sent a “recommendation memo,” that was sent to commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey from the department’s chief medical officer Tim Jones.

“…[P]lease accept this recommendation to expire the executive service of Dr. Michelle Fiscus…” the memo reads. It cites “failure to maintain good working relationships with members of her team,” among other reasons for her termination.

In a rebuttal, Fiscus’ husband Brad sent three years of performance reviews that rated her work “outstanding,” most recently for a period of Oct. 2019 through Sept. 2020.

The dates of issued claimed fell after her last performance review period.

The document concludes with her supervisor writing “Dr. Fiscus has been attentive to her team. She has exceed (sic) expectations in managing all programmatic activities while being fully immersed in [COVID-19] response efforts. … Her program has had some key transitions during this evaluation period which have been managed well.”

The dates specified in the memo fall after Fiscus’ performance review. A termination letter given to Fiscus and obtained by FOX13 Investigates did not specify why she was fired.

“Tennessee has allowed politics and political agenda to get between the duty of public health,” Fiscus said Thursday.

In Fiscus’ words, it started in June with a contentious hearing in which Republican state lawmakers in a joint Government Operations Committee the became incensed about a memo outlining legal doctrine, known as the “Mature Minor Doctrine,” allowing children aged 14 and older to be vaccinated without parental consent.

Fiscus said she sent the memo after health providers began asking questions about guidelines surrounding giving vaccines to children after emergency use authorization was given to children aged 12 and older. The department’s attorney gave her language for the letter, Fiscus said.

The doctrine was established in 1987 as the result of a ruling by the state Supreme Court.

“Some people use (scapegoat) … I think it’s probably fair,” Fiscus said in response to a question if she believed she was being made to take the blame for angry lawmakers.

Not long after that, Fiscus said she got an anonymous package from Amazon containing a dog muzzle, a message, she believed, to stop talking. It was just few days later she said a meeting between legislators and department leaders led to her firing.

The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security is investigating.

“I think it was, you know, tit-for-tat; [the health department] fire Fiscus and [lawmakers] stop giving Department of Health a hard time,” Fiscus said.

Emails obtained by FOX13 Investigates also show a new stance taken by the state’s health department.

“Per the commissioner,” there will be no outreach on immunizations of any kind, Jones wrote to Fiscus in an email dated July 8.

The Shelby County Health Department sets its own policies and said this week it will continue to do vaccination outreach and events, especially as the school year approaches.

“It definitely is going to hurt our Black and brown communities more than any other. … [A]nd it is critically important that we get politics out of the way of public health,” Fiscus said.

The office of Gov. Bill Lee said it does not comment on personnel matters.