The state of Tennessee announced Friday that it will resume nearly all forms of coronavirus vaccine outreach for children and teenagers after advocacy was halted this month because of pressure from Republican lawmakers upset at the health department’s efforts to vaccinate minors.
Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said at a news conference that the state will jump-start efforts to promote vaccination for adolescents as early as next week, including by offering the shots at events on school property.
“We put a pause on many things, and then we have resumed all of those,” Piercey told reporters, adding that outreach was paused so that the messaging would be directed at parents, not children.
The health department said it would continue to prohibit social media posts promoting the vaccine that are specifically aimed at children.
Piercey also announced that health officials will provide a vaccine shot to minors without their parents’ permission in what she described as “fringed and nuanced” circumstances. Her statement Friday contradicted an announcement made by state Republicans this week who claimed that Piercey privately agreed “to stop vaccinating children for COVID-19 without parental consent, and to stop marketing to minors,” according to the Tennessean.
“The reason for this pause is because we wanted to leave no room for interpretation about where we are shooting,” Piercey said. “And we are shooting to get the message to parents. And there was a perception that we were marketing to children.”
The news is the latest in the controversy over how Tennessee has gone about trying to vaccinate its young people during the pandemic and how political pressure has played a role in that messaging. Michelle Fiscus said she was fired from her job as director of immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health last week as retaliation for the department’s efforts to vaccinate teenagers against coronavirus, a plan, she said, that angered several state lawmakers.
“This is about a partisan issue around coronavirus vaccines and around people in power in Tennessee not believing in the importance in vaccinating the people, and so they terminated the person in charge of getting it done,” Fiscus told The Washington Post last week. “The government is sacrificing public health to be in the good graces of our legislators; it’s a horrid dereliction of duty.”
With less than 39% of its eligible population fully vaccinated, Tennessee is among the states with the lowest vaccination rates in the country.
Piercey joined a chorus of public officials Friday saying that the pandemic has become one fueled by the unvaccinated. She said 97% of the state’s current COVID-19 hospitalizations and more than 98% of virus deaths are among those who are unvaccinated. Her comments echoed that of Alabama’s Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, who blamed the uptick in COVID-19 cases in her state on people who remain unvaccinated.
Bill Christian, a spokesman with the Tennessee Department of Health, did not offer a statement Friday, referring The Post to Piercey’s comments at the news conference. A representative for Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Lee did not immediately return a request for comment.
The state’s messaging regarding vaccinating minors — and the deep anti-vaccine attitude among some lawmakers — came to light when the Tennessean first reported that the health department had significantly scaled back efforts to promote the vaccine to young people. As Fiscus previously told The Post, Republican lawmakers took offense when she sent a memo explaining to medical providers the state’s “Mature Minor Doctrine,” a legal mechanism by which they are allowed to inoculate minors 14 and above without consent from their parents.
Legislators asked the health department about the memo within days of it being sent out, with some interpreting the letter as an attempt to undermine parental authority, Fiscus said. Then, several Republican lawmakers ripped Fiscus during a June 16 hearing of the legislature’s Joint Government Operations Committee.
Republican State Sen. Janice Bowling said at the time that the state was overstepping and “misjudging” its legal authority, and had urged Piercey to “back off” the “misapplication” of the doctrine and take action to “remove the fear, the concerns and the anger that has gone across the state as a result of (Fiscus’s) letter.” Republican State Rep. Scott Cepicky slammed the health department for “targeting” the “impressionable youth” with advertising that promotes vaccination for teenagers, which he deemed “reprehensible.”
Neither Bowling nor Cepicky immediately responded to a request for comment.
The GOP pressure seemingly worked, according to the Tennessean, as the health department appeared to delete pro-vaccine Facebook and Twitter posts, many of which recommended the vaccine to anyone over 12, that angered Republican lawmakers.
Then, the agency wrote in an internal report this month that the state would halt all adolescent vaccine outreach. As part of that pause, the health department ensured it would no longer send notices reminding teens to get their second dose of the vaccine.
Piercey, who acknowledged Friday that vaccine hesitancy still remains in Tennessee, emphasized that the health department did not plan to stop vaccine outreach permanently. She repeated to reporters that she believes people should be vaccinated — and said no one in government should force people into a decision.
“At the end of the day, it is a personal choice for the individual,” she said. “It is not the role of government to coerce, or bully, or shame people into making a choice that they feel is best for them.”