Muzzle sent to Tenn. vaccine expert bought on Amazon account, credit card in her name, report says

Tennessee’s former top vaccination official, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, told state investigators in July she received a dog muzzle in the mail that she deemed to be a threat to keep her quiet.

The muzzle, however, was purchased on an Amazon account and with an American Express card under her name, according to a state investigation which concluded Monday.

“There is no evidence to indicate the dog muzzle was intended to threaten Dr. Fiscus,” per the report, written by Special Agent Mario Vigil with the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Dr. Michelle Fiscus holds up a muzzle at her home in Franklin, Tenn., on July 14, 2021.Stephanie Amador / The Tennessean

Fiscus, a pediatrician, was the state’s Medical Director of the Vaccine Preventable Disease and Immunization Program. She was fired on July 12 amid a political firestorm, less that two weeks after she says she was mailed the muzzle.

She has said that her firing was a political decision made to placate lawmakers who disapproved of the Department of Health’s outreach to get teens vaccinated for Covid-19.

Fiscus could not be immediately reached for comment by NBC News on Tuesday. She told NBC affiliate WSMV in Nashville that she acknowledges the muzzle was paid for using an American Express that belongs to her, but “vehemently denies” buying the muzzle and sending it to herself.

“I’ve thought about who could be to blame. It’s not anything that I have any evidence to show,” Fiscus told WSMV. “I think there is just a lot of layers here that … I don’t understand.”

Fiscus also tweeted on Monday night that “the state’s investigation did NOT conclude I sent the muzzle.”

“In fact, it only concluded my credit card was charged with the incorrect billing address – my state work office – to an Amazon account I didn’t know existed,” she said in the tweet.

“That account was apparently accessed from the State of Washington, where I had never been, by a cell phone using a carrier I have never used,” she said in another tweet. “I have asked the state for the full unredacted report and am awaiting a response.”

The report, reviewed by NBC News, was partially redacted. At times it omitted names or personal identifiers such as phone numbers.

An investigation was launched July 7 when a doctor with the state’s department of health contacted the director of the state’s homeland security, Greg Mays, and expressed concern the muzzle was an intended threat, according to the report.

Two special agents met with Fiscus on July 8. She told them the dog muzzle was delivered in an Amazon package at her office on July 2, but she did not open it until July 6, following the holiday weekend, the report said. There was no return address on the package, nor identifying data indicating who sent the “silicon basket dog muzzle,” the report said.

She first thought a colleague sent her the muzzle as a joke, but when the colleague denied sending it, Fiscus told investigators she viewed it as a veiled threat.

“Dr. Fiscus said she felt it was a threat and that she should stop talking about vaccinating people,” the report said. “Due to her role in the vaccination program and her authoring a memo on Tennessee’s ‘Mature Minor’ Doctrine that she had been singled out for criticism by some people in the public, as well as several Tennessee Legislators.”

A special agent contacted Amazon on July 8 about the dog muzzle. An Amazon employee told the agent without a subpoena, he could only do a cursory barcode search. The employee said based on the search, “the receiver (Dr. Fiscus) was also the sender, but he could not be certain,” the report said.

An investigator then spoke to Fiscus, who told the special agent she had no knowledge of who sent the muzzle or why Amazon indicated she sent it. The report also said Fiscus allowed investigators to access an Amazon account in her name and to view archived purchases from the account. That account did not list the muzzle as a purchased item, the report said. Fiscus also said neither her husband nor daughter sent the muzzle, according to the report.

After a judge signed off on a subpoena ordering Amazon to provide more details about the account behind the dog muzzle, investigators learned that “the account which the muzzle had been purchased on was in Dr. Fiscus’ name and had been opened in March 2021.”

Investigators also asked a judge to subpoena the service provider of the phone number listed on the Amazon account which the muzzle was purchased on, the investigation said. Records provided to the investigation showed the carrier from which the muzzle was purchased was T-Mobile.

Although Fiscus said her termination was political, state documents say Fiscus was fired because she was a poor leader and manager.

Tennessee’s chief medical officer, Dr. Tim Jones, recommended that Fiscus should be removed partly due to complaints about her leadership approach and also for how she handled a letter about vaccination rights of minors that prompted outrage among Republican lawmakers, state records show.

The Associated Press contributed.

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