The Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) has decided to drop the state's vaccine outreach campaign aimed at children and teenagers for all vaccination programs, including COVID-19, according to the Tennessean. Since mid-June, GOP lawmakers in the state have been at arms with the agency, accusing it of targeting minors and "peer pressuring" kids to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
In a joint Government Operations Committee meeting on June 16, many Republican lawmakers pressed state Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercy to cancel or "reconstitute" the department's duties following its attempts to vaccinate Tennessee's minors against the coronavirus. Rep. Scott Cepickey, R-Culleoka, pointed out the agency's inappropriate methods to urge teens and young adults to get immunized against COVID-19 regardless of parental consent. He said of the efforts:
"We know how impressionable our young people are. For a department of ours to make it seem like you need a vaccine ... to fit in is peer pressure applied by the state of Tennessee. Personally, I think it's reprehensible that you would do that, that you would do that to our youth."
Cepickey referenced the marketing tactics used by the TDH to encourage kids to get vaccinated, including colorful flyers with children getting the jab, accompanied by phrases like "Give COVID-19 vaccines a shot" or "Tennesseans 12+ eligible for vaccines." The images didn't sit well with the Republicans. Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, stated to Piercy:
"It looks like the Department of Health is marketing to children, and it looks like you're advocating. Market to parents, don't market to children. Period."
In the Committee Meeting, Piercy explained to lawmakers the situations in which minors might get vaccinations without parental consent under the state's Mature Minor Doctrine, which allows teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 to be treated by a physician without parental consent unless the physician feels the minor isn't adequately equipped to make their health care decisions. According to Piercy, those circumstances are rare, adding that "Under no circumstance is the department encouraging children to seek out vaccination without parental consent." Commenting that Gov. Bill Lee has been clear that parents should be the decision-makers regarding the health of their children, she went on to say:
"I think there is a sense that we are hiding in dark alleys and whispering to kids, hey, come get vaccinated. We're not doing that. We're not encouraging that. It is an allowance, and we do believe that vaccination is the right thing to do for children, and so we don't want to prohibit that if that's something they want to do."
On Monday, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, Tennessee's top vaccine official, indicated she was fired in the aftermath of the GOP opposition to the state's vaccination strategies because she wrote a memo that cited a state Supreme Court opinion suggesting children ages 14 and older can get the COVID-19 vaccine, or any vaccine, without parental approval. In an interview with CNN following the termination of her employment, Fiscus, a vocal advocate for the experimental COVID-19 vaccines, shared, "It is just astounding to me how absolutely political and self-centered our elected people are here and how very little they care for the people of Tennessee. The people of Tennessee are going to pay a price."
Department of Health spokesperson Sarah Tanksley said the agency couldn't comment on the employment situation with Fiscus, adding that Tennessee has "in no way [shuttered] the immunizations for children program," explaining:
"[Out] of an abundance of concern and recognizing the scrutiny surrounding vaccines and intense national conversation that is affecting how many families evaluate vaccinations in general. We are evaluating certain tactics that could hurt progress in our state."
The TDH reported it would suspend all COVID-19 vaccine events on school property and take steps to ensure it no longer sends postcards or other notices reminding teenagers to get their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccines. Instead, postcards will still be sent to adults only to avoid procedures that could be "potentially interpreted as solicitation to minors."
In a statement emailed to UncoverDC on Wednesday, Tanksley remarked that, given the current circumstances, there is a lot of misinformation circulating regarding Tennessee and immunizations. She was clear to point out that in no way has Tennessee halted the immunizations for children program, adding, "TDH understands the importance of childhood immunizations, the impacts to overall health for Tennesseans, and we continue to support those outreach efforts. Providing information and access are routine public health functions, and that has not changed. Tennessee has a long and proven history of being one of the top programs in the nation when it comes to childhood immunization rates." Tanksley's statement continued:
Below are some highlights of our success in this area, which are largely due to the outreach efforts from TDH across the state.
- Tennessee ranked among the top 10 states for MMR vaccination coverage among kindergartners during the 2019-2020 school year.
- 95.3 percent of 2020-2021 kindergarten students in TN were fully immunized.
- Tennessee has above 90 percent coverage of kindergarten students receiving childhood immunizations for more than a decade, including DTaP, MMR, Polio, Chicken Pox, Hepatitis B.
TDH wants to remain a trustworthy source of information to help individuals, including parents, make these decisions. And being that trustworthy messenger means we are mindful of hesitancy and the intense national conversation affecting how many families evaluate vaccinations in general. We are mindful of how certain tactics could hurt that progress.