Tennessee’s top vaccine official says she was fired over outreach to teens: ‘I am afraid for my state’

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Tennessee officials have fired Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the state’s top vaccination official, who is speaking out against some of the state’s legislators who she says have bought into anti-vaccine misinformation.

The now-former immunization director for the Tennessee Department of Health had been facing scrutiny from Republican state lawmakers over her department’s outreach efforts to promote COVID-19 vaccinations among teenagers.

“Now there is a fundamental lack of ability to discern credible information in the state of Tennessee amongst our leaders as well,” Fiscus told WKRN. “They don’t seem to be able to tell the difference between a Facebook meme and a peer-reviewed scientific journal publication.”

Dr. Fiscus told The Tennessean that she was fired Monday to appease lawmakers. She provided the newspaper with a copy of her termination letter, which does not explain the reasoning for her dismissal.

She also released a blistering statement accusing the “leaders” of the state of ignoring the dead and dying around them while turning their backs on doctors, scientists and other front line workers during the pandemic.

“I am ashamed of them,” she wrote. “I am afraid for my state. I am 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. And I am deeply saddened for the people of Tennessee, who will continue to become sick and die from this vaccine-preventable disease because they choose to listen to the nonsense spread by ignorant people.”

Dr. Fiscus told WKRN she was a scapegoat for a legislature bent on vaccine misinformation: “Our elected officials, many of them have really bought into this anti-vaccine propaganda that has been widely distributed, and they are not seeking the opinions of medical experts who understand these vaccines and understand this pandemic.”

Health Department spokesperson Sarah Tanksley said the agency cannot comment on HR or personnel matters.

Governor Bill Lee and several state lawmakers were at the Grand Hyatt on Tuesday morning for the fourth day of the Southern Legislative Conference. Governor Lee declined to comment on his way out.

Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton shared his reaction to Dr. Fiscus’ comments.

“I look at America I don’t think you can blame that on Tennessee. It’s been politicized with the world, with the Biden administration,” said Sexton. “I just think that [Dr. Fiscus] is a little upset that she was let go and when you are employed sometimes those decisions are made when you, you’ve, you know, kind of parted ways.”

Emails obtained by the Tennessean paint a concerted effort, starting in June, to roll back vaccine outreach to minors by cancelling vaccine events for adolescents and deleting Facebook and Twitter posts recommending the COVID-19 vaccine to anyone over the age of 12.

Representative Michael Curcio (R-Dickson) also commented on the firing of Dr. Fiscus.

“What went into the actual firing decision, obviously I don’t know, I was not part of those conversations,” said Curcio. “But I do know there was a lot of questions within the General Assembly…I’m sure they made the best decision with the information that they had.”

Tennessee Democrats have also reacted to the firing.

“A well-respected member of the public health community was sacrificed in favor of anti-vaccine ideology,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), the chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “This disgraceful hatchet job is going to endanger the lives of unvaccinated Tennesseans at a time when we have a safe and reliable way to protect our families from this virus. A disappointing and poor decision.”

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) called the move “insane” in a tweet Monday afternoon.

As of Monday, state and federal data showed 38% of Tennesseans were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, lagging behind much of the nation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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