Dr. Michelle Fiscus, Tennessee’s top immunization official was fired in early July, though for what, the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) will not say. Fiscus claims that her departure was a result of blowback from state lawmakers, who believe that she promoted teen vaccination without parental consent too aggressively.
Fiscus recently distributed a memo to medical providers suggesting ways for teens to be vaccinated without needing their parents’ consent. The “mature-minor” doctrine indeed allows teens between the ages of 14 and 18 to be treated by doctors without parental consent, according to a Tennessee Supreme Court ruling from 1987. Although this precedent has existed for decades and information about it is widely available, backlash from lawmakers was swift.
State representatives in the Tennessee legislature have been outspoken with criticism for TDH’s past vaccination campaign, claiming that it goes too far by suggesting that teenagers should be vaccinated without parental consent. TDH has since backed off from aggressively promoting vaccination, stating that they are concerned about the well-being of their public credibility. “Being that trustworthy messenger means we are mindful of hesitancy and the intense national conversation that is affecting how many families evaluate vaccinations in general,” TDH said in a public statement. “We are simply mindful of how certain tactics could hurt that progress.”
While TDH hasn’t said that it’s abandoning the vaccination promotion campaign, Nashville newspaper The Tennessean claims that according to internal documents they have acquired, TDH will be halting “all adolescent vaccine outreach,” including but not limited to inoculation protecting against COVID-19.
In a recent interview, Fiscus juxtaposes the increasing polarization of the political landscape to the apolitical nature of COVID-19. “This virus is apolitical — it doesn’t care who you are or where you live or which president you preferred… It’s just been a very difficult thing for us to overcome.”
Fiscus says that she has been grappling with the public’s hesitancy to get vaccines since well before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Before moving into public health, Fiscus practiced as a pediatrician, and says that people were nervous to vaccinate their children for multiple other vaccine-preventable diseases.
Her frustration mounted when vaccines for COVID-19 were approved for multiple age groups in Tennessee, but rates of vaccination began to lag behind the national average. According to data gathered by The New York Times vaccine tracking effort, 44% of Tennesseeans have received at least one dose of any of the major vaccines, while more than 56% of all Americans have.