The ouster of Tennessee’s top vaccination official will put more lives at risk, Democratic senators say, as new cases of Covid-19 are ticking up in the state.
On Monday, Gov. Bill Lee’s administration fired Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health. The administration’s termination letter provides no explanation or cause for firing her.
But in recent weeks, anti-vaccine lawmakers from the controlling party targeted Fiscus for sending a letter to healthcare providers outlining the circumstances in which they could provide a Covid-19 vaccine to teenagers.
Dr. Fiscus was fired for doing her job and carrying out the public health mission of the state health department, says Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), the chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
“A well respected member of the public health community was sacrificed in favor of anti-vaccine ideology,” Sen. Akbari said. “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.”
In a statement submitted after being fired, Fiscus stated, “Today I became the 25th of 64 state and territorial immunization program directors to leave their position during this pandemic. That’s nearly 40% of us. And along with our resignations or retirements or, as in my case, push from office, goes the institutional knowledge and leadership of our respective COVID-19 vaccine responses. I will not sit quietly by while our public health infrastructure is eroded in the midst of a pandemic.
“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.
“….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.”
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) summed up the situation on Twitter: “Well folks, this is just insane.”
“The political firing of Dr. Fiscus isn’t just an embarrassment. It’s reckless when cases and hospitalizations are rising and 62 percent (of Tennesseans) remain unvaccinated,” Yarbro continued.
Sen. Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville) says the firing of Dr. Fiscus will lead to more public health failures in Tennessee as state health experts temper their recommendations to appease anti-vaccine politicians.
“We cannot afford to ignore the chilling effect that this is having,” Sen. Campbell said. “It will make this public health emergency worse by order of magnitudes.”
According to lawmakers, Tennessee is number one in the U.S. for largest increase of new COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks per 100,000 people.