NASHVILLE — Republican Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday came out in full defense of his administration’s firing of the state’s vaccination chief and rollback of outreach for childhood vaccines, both of which have sparked national scrutiny over Tennessee’s inoculation efforts against covid-19.
“Government needs to provide information and education, provide access and we need to do so to parents of those children,” Lee told reporters. “That’s the direction the department took. Regarding individual personnel decisions, I trust the department to make decisions consistent with the vision.”
Lee’s comment marks the first time he has weighed in publicly on the firing last week of then-vaccine chief Michelle Fiscus, who has repeatedly said she was terminated to appease some GOP lawmakers who were outraged over state outreach for COVID-19 vaccinations to minors. Some lawmakers even threatened to dissolve the Health Department because of such marketing.
Yet Lee sidestepped direct questions on why Fiscus was fired, saying Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey never disclosed those reasons to him.
Instead, Lee encouraged Tennesseans to get a covid-19 shot as the state has steadily seen some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, while continuing to stress that it’s a personal choice.
He said the government’s role in the vaccine is “to provide information, to provide education, to provide access, to provide the vaccine,” but not to “mandate, to require, it’s not to blame, it’s not to shame those who choose not to.”
“We want to encourage Tennesseans to talk to their doctor, to talk to their clergy, to talk to their family members, the trusted voices in their life, in order for them to make a personal decision about whether or not to pursue getting the vaccine, but we encourage that because it is the tool that will most effectively allow us to manage this virus,” Lee said, breaking his weeks-long silence on encouraging the public to get a vaccine.
Fiscus on Thursday said she’s “dismayed by the continued complacency” of the Lee administration during the pandemic.
“While Arkansas Governor [Asa] Hutchinson is setting vaccination goals, asking employers to encourage vaccination in the workplace, and talking about individual responsibility, Governor Lee’s continued mantra is that of ‘personal choice,’” Fiscus said in a statement.
Lee doubled down on the department’s recent policy change on childhood vaccine outreach, after Fiscus said the Health Department stopped outreach for vaccinating minors for all diseases, not just covid-19, which she backed up through departmental email records. Lee, health officials and lawmakers described the change as a halt to marketing vaccines to children, saying parents should be getting the information. The Department of Health has directed parents to its website for childhood vaccine information.
One online post, featuring a photo of a smiling child with a Band-Aid on his arm, said, “Tennesseans 12+ are eligible for vaccines. Give COVID-19 vaccines a shot.”
Earlier this year, Fiscus released a memo detailing Tennessee’s Mature Minor Doctrine, which traces back to a 1987 state Supreme Court case and allows providers to vaccinate children 14 and up without a parent’s consent. The memo led to a firestorm at a legislative meeting last month among Republicans.
Tennessee is one of five states where providers have discretion to decide if a minor is mature enough to consent to vaccination without a parent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which said 41 other states require parental consent and five others have a self-consent age under 18.
GOP lawmakers said at a meeting Wednesday that they have received private reassurances from Piercey and a governor’s office official that the state Health Department, Education Department and 89 of 95 county health departments won’t be offering the COVID-19 vaccine to minors without their parents’ permission. They also said the administration officials promised not to market to minors.
The six other, larger county health departments, including Nashville and Memphis’ Shelby County, are run independently.
The lawmakers did not say the change would limit medical providers outside the government.
In the days since Fiscus’ firing, the health department released a firing recommendation letter that claimed she sent around “her own interpretation” of the Mature Minor Doctrine. The letter also alleged deficiencies in her leadership.
Fiscus has fought back those claims, saying the letter she sent providers was verbatim from documents provided by the department’s chief legal counsel and provided email records to back up the assertion. She also issued a point-by-point rebuttal to the alleged fire-able offenses and distributed years of positive performance reviews from her supervisor.