According to an internal report and agency emails, the Tennessee Department of Health is halting all vaccine outreach to teenagers—not just related to the covid-19 vaccine, but to vaccines for all diseases. Additionally, the health department will no longer hold covid-19 vaccine events on school property and plans to stop sending postcards or other notices reminding teenagers to get their second dose of the covid-19 vaccine.
Nashville-based paper The Tennessean reports that these changes to Tennessee vaccine policy come amid pressure to appease anti-vax Republican legislators in the state. The internal health department report announcing the changes was circulated on Friday, and on Monday, the top vaccine official in Tennessee, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, was fired “without explanation.” “This is a failure of public health to protect the people of Tennessee and that is what is ‘reprehensible,’ Fiscus said on Monday about her firing. “When the people elected and appointed to lead this state put their political gains ahead of the public good, they have betrayed the people who have trusted them with their lives.”
This decision would lead to deaths anywhere—after all, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic that has killed over 600,000 people in the U.S. in less than a year and a half—but its potential impact is particularly dangerous in Tennessee. Currently, only 38% of Tennesseans are fully vaccinated, and if the pace of vaccination remains the same, the state won’t reach the 50% vaccination mark until next March. This decision also comes right at the moment where coronavirus has begun to spread again within Tennessee after months of declining numbers—just in the past two weeks, the average number of new cases per day more than doubled from 177 to 418. (During the same period, the average test positivity rate increased from 2.2% to 5.4%.)
In a Monday email elaborating on the changes to Tennessee vaccine policy, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tim Jones told staff to conduct “no proactive outreach regarding routine vaccines” and “no outreach whatsoever regarding the HPV vaccine,” reports The Tennessean. Staff were also told not to plan for flu shot events at schools, and to remove the Tennessee Department of Health logo from any information released about back-to-school vaccinations. Apparently, it might look bad to implicate the department of health in... sharing information about healthcare?
In the past, the state health department had regularly advocated for vaccinating kids against the flu, measles, mumps, rubella, and HPV, and other viruses. But the Tennessee health department’s approach to vaccines began to shift after a June hearing where conservative lawmakers accused Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey and the agency of attempting to “peer pressure” minors to get vaccinated. During the hearing, Tennessee legislators went as far as to discuss dissolving the entire health department solely to stop its vaccine outreach, as if that’s not a terrifying abuse of power that would directly lead to the death of state residents—in this case, actual children!
The Tennessee health department did not confirm or deny the existence of Jones’ email, and department spokesperson Sarah Tanksley said the agency is making decisions in response to “an intense national conversation that is affecting how many families evaluate vaccinations in general.” “National conversation” is a funny way of phrasing “deliberate and deadly misinformation campaign!”