Dr. Michelle Fiscus, Tennessee’s top vaccination official, was fired this week after public service ads were sent to teenagers informing them that they were eligible to receive a Covid-19 vaccine. The Tennessee Department of Health (DOH) has now dropped all adolescent vaccine outreach — not just for Covid-19; the fallout from Fiscus’s firing is the latest example of how vaccine misinformation can harm public health efforts.
The decision followed a contentious state legislature committee meeting last month in which Republican legislators reprimanded DOH for, they said, allowing anyone older than 14 to get vaccinated without parental consent.
“Parental consent is not an option in Tennessee,” wrote GOP state representative Robin Smith in a Facebook post Monday in support of Fiscus’s firing. “This is the employee of the state who was directing health providers to apply the mature minor doctrine to receive vaccines…without parental consent.” At the committee hearing last month, another legislator denounced an “agenda here to have children vaccinated with or without parental consent.”
But the suggestion that DOH favored vaccinating teenagers on a mass scale without parental consent is misleading; the state health commissioner, Lisa Piercey, said at the June committee meeting that fewer than 10 adolescents — three of them Piercey’s children — had gone to health departments for vaccines under the “mature minor” doctrine. The doctrine has been in effect in Tennessee since 1987, and it remains in effect despite Fiscus’s firing.
Other misinformation was shared at the meeting that preceded Fiscus’s termination. Scott Cepicky, a Republican state representative, said during a House committee hearing that “we don’t even know what we’re putting in our bodies,” recalling debunked misinformation narratives about the ingredients of Covid-19 vaccines. Mark Pody, a GOP state senator, said that the vaccine “hasn’t even been fully examined and we don’t even know what the long-term effects are.”
The Covid-19 vaccines approved in the US have been found safe and effective by top medical regulators; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends Covid-19 vaccines to people 12 and older. Although teenagers are at a lower risk of serious illness from Covid-19, public health experts have expressed fears that unvaccinated minors would lead to more hospitalizations and cases of “long Covid.”
Nevertheless, some anti-vaccination influencers celebrated Fiscus’s firing and Tennessee’s decision to drop vaccine outreach to teenagers. Emerald Robinson, a correspondent at Newsmax, a conservative site that has published numerous pandemic-related conspiracy theories, wrote in a tweet to her 385,000 followers, “Congratulations to the great state of Tennessee for firing their COVID vaccine official.” The pro-Donald Trump anonymous message board “The Patriots” (formerly “The Donald”) described the firing as “winning” in a post that received at least 1,000 upvotes. Trump had taken personal credit for the development of Covid-19 vaccines, and was quietly vaccinated in January. — Keenan Chen