SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — Local health officials said they will continue child vaccination outreach efforts in Memphis and Shelby County after Tennessee’s former top vaccinations official revealed the Tennessee Department of Health has halted outreach efforts around any kind of vaccines for children. Meanwhile, state officials are making clear they have not stopped vaccine efforts in Tennessee.
Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who was the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health, said Tuesday that she couldn’t stay silent after she was fired Monday amid scrutiny from Republican state lawmakers over her department’s outreach efforts to vaccinate teenagers against COVID-19, the Associated Press reported.
Fiscus said the state’s elected leaders put politics over the health of children by firing her for her efforts to get more Tennesseans vaccinated. She said the agency presented her with a letter of resignation and a letter of termination Monday, but no reason for why she was being let go. After choosing the termination letter, Fiscus wrote a response in which she said she is ashamed of Tennessee’s leaders, afraid for her state and “angry for the amazing people of the Tennessee Department of Health who have been mistreated by an uneducated public and leaders who have only their own interests in mind.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Lee told FOX13 Wednesday his office cannot comment on personal matters.
Fiscus also revealed that the Tennessee Department of Health has halted all outreach efforts around any kind of vaccines for children, not just for COVID-19. State officials have pushed back on Fiscus’s claims.
“Despite misleading reporting, the Department of Health has not halted the Vaccines for Children Program that provides information and vaccine access to Tennessee parents,” Lee’s press secretary Casey Black said in her email to FOX13. However, reporting across the state has focused on internal memos at TDH about the department curtailing its messaging about vaccinations of all kinds.
Black’s email, like a statement a day before from the Tennessee Department of Health, cited some of the state’s accomplishments in child vaccinations, including 95.3% of 2020-2021 kindergarten students in the state being fully immunized.
“The department is mindful of ensuring parents, not kids, are the intended audience for any outreach efforts regarding medical decisions for children and has simply re-evaluated some tactics like reminder postcards and follow-up communications,” Black said. “While childhood immunization rates temporarily dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are already seeing vaccination rates rebound to pre-pandemic levels and will continue supporting parents who are working to get their families back on track.”
The controversy involving Fiscus and vaccinations appeared to start in the spring after Fiscus says she shared legal guidance about a state law that allows minors above the age of 14 to choose to get a vaccination without parental consent. That led to a contentious state legislative committee meeting last month where some lawmakers questioned health leaders about circumventing parental consent and even threatened to disband the entire health department.
Shelby County has been able to avoid much of the fallout. It is one of six large, metropolitan counties in Tennessee that has its own health department that is not under control of the state health department.
“Public health and safety is the Shelby County Health Department’s number one priority,” the county agency said in a statement to FOX13 Wednesday. “Our mission is to promote, protect and improve the health of ALL in Shelby County. In keeping with our mission, we will continue to provide a comprehensive vaccination program for Shelby County residents of all ages.
The Shelby County Health Department held an event last Saturday to promote and provide vaccinations ahead of the upcoming school year. Another event is scheduled for this Saturday.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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