Children, parents, and teachers are pumped up to be back in school this Fall. But the continued presence of Covid-19 and the rise of the more contagious Delta Variant create a veil of anxiety.
Michelle Fiscus, the top vaccine official in Tennessee, promoted the Covid-19 vaccine across the State to reduce the risk in schools. Vaccine promotion is expected of the person in charge of vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health. What was unexpected was Dr. Fiscus got fired over her efforts.
Like many southern US States, vaccination rates in Tennesee are terribly low with only 38% of the residents full-vaccinated. Public health experts are concerned that low vaccination rates combined with the rising cases of Covid may curb efforts to reopen in-person schools and keep local businesses open.
Dr. Michelle Fiscus hoped to use her role in the public health system to prevent a back-to-school clash between the low vaccination rates and the rise of the Delta Variant. Pubic health officers focus on the health of communities, track disease trends, provide health education and employ strategies to keep the public safe.
Dr. Fiscus and her team planned to use the public health system to encourage Covid-19 vaccination in students in the age group approved by FDA emergency use authorization. Children 12 years old and up qualify for the Pfizer messenger RNA Covid-19 vaccine.
The FDA expanded the emergency use authorization for the Pfizer messenger RNA Covid-19 vaccine for kids age 12–15 years old after data showed the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was 100% effective and generated a high antibody response in children aged 12–15.
Like the Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines, the Pfizer vaccine does not contain a live virus. One cannot catch Covid-19 from these vaccines. The mRNA vaccines do not enter our cells’ nucleus and do not alter vaccine recipients’ DNA.
Fortunately, most children infected with SARS-CoV-2 do well. Children account for only 0.00%-0.21% of all Covid-19 deaths. Vaccinating children helps prevent the further spread of Covid-19 in communities and moves the US closer to herd immunity.
The Tennesee Department of Health Covid Vaccine Dashboard shows only 2% of students age 12-15 years old have been vaccinated.
Dr. Michelle Fiscus and her team at the Tennessee Department of Health created a public health campaign to encourage teenage vaccination before the start of school. But as of Monday, July 12, she finds herself unemployed.
So why did Tennesee fire the State’s top official with years of experience fighting infectious disease during the middle of the pandemic? Dr. Fiscus explains in her 1200 response published word for word in the Tennessean in which she states:
I will not sit quietly by while our public health infrastructure is eroded in the midst of a pandemic.
Dr. Fiscus reports that 40% of US State Immunization directors have left their job or been fired during the pandemic thus eroding the available expertise to navigate through the pandemic. She explains the emotional trauma the public health servants have tolerated as they tried to keep the public safe.
We are a group of dedicated public health professionals who have worked endless hours to make COVID-19 vaccines, the ONE tool we have to effectively end the scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic, available to every person in our jurisdictions. Along the way we have been disparaged, demeaned, accused, and sometimes vilified by a public who chooses not to believe in science, and elected and appointed officials who have put their own self-interest above the people they were chosen to represent and protect.
The political backlash hit Dr. Fiscus after a message sent to healthcare providers with educational material on Tennessee State law circulated on conservative social media channels. Tennessee’s Mature Minor Doctrine has been on the books since 1987. It allows minors age 14-17 to get vaccines without parental consent.
No one seemed to care about this 34-year-old law until now.
Fiscus was called to testify before the Government Operations Committee on May 19th and accused of “encouraging to vaccinate children without parental consent.” She testified again on June 16.
Senator Janice Bowling, a Republican, did not express frustration with a law passed 34 years ago. The Senator was angry that Dr. Fiscus wrote about it. “It is very disconcerting to see the letter, or memo, from Dr. Fiscus stating that Tennessee law allows the Department of Health to give vaccinations to children 14 years of age.”
Senator Mark Pody, also a Republican, suggested closing down the entire Tennesee Public Health Department. Apparently, He did not know the law passed in 1987.
Dr. Fiscus did not write Tennessee’s Mature Minor Doctrine. She and the States Health Department have nothing to do with Tennessee Supreme Court case law allowing minors ages 14-17 years to receive medical care in Tennessee without parental consent.
Dr. Fiscus summarizes her role in the final paragraph of her statement.
It is the mission of the Tennessee Department of Health to “protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of the people of Tennessee” and protecting them against the deadliest infectious disease event in more than 100 years IS our job. It’s the most important job we’ve had in recent history. Specifically, it was MY job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against COVID-19. I have now been terminated for doing exactly that.