Top Tennessee COVID-19 vaccine official says she was terminated

Top Tennessee COVID-19 vaccine official says she was terminated
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The top state vaccination official in Tennessee said she was terminated on Monday for no reason, claiming she was being used as a scapegoat to please state lawmakers upset about her department's efforts to increase vaccinations among teenagers, The Tennessean reports.

Michelle Fiscus, medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health, told The Tennessean that she was fired Monday afternoon. Her termination comes as COVID-19 cases are on the rise in the state.

"It was my job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against COVID-19," Fiscus told the newspaper in a statement. "I have now been terminated for doing exactly that."

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The Tennessean notes that state lawmakers criticized Fiscus by name last month during a committee hearing, expressing anger over a letter she had sent to medical providers about the “Mature Minor Doctrine,” which allows minors over the age of 14 to get vaccinated without their parents' consent.

The legal mechanism has been in place since 1987 and has been publicly available online since 2008.

With Fiscus's termination, the Volunteer State joins around two dozen other states that have been left without a top vaccine authority, all for various reasons but most often because the official left.

A spokeswoman for the state health department told The Tennessean that it would not comment on Fiscus's firing.

Fiscus shared a 1,200-word statement with The Tennessean following her firing on Monday.

In it, she wrote she would "not sit quietly by while our public health infrastructure is eroded in the midst of a pandemic."

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"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," she wrote, bemoaning how health experts have been "disparaged, demeaned, accused, and sometimes vilified" by the public throughout the pandemic.

"I am not a political operative, I am a physician who was, until today, charged with protecting the people of Tennessee, including its children, against preventable diseases like COVID-19," Fiscus added.

Democratic Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson spoke out against Fiscus's firing on Twitter, writing, "Science denying TNGOP legislators demanded a sacrifice to their anti-mask, anti-vax, anti-fact ideology & a great woman, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who worked tirelessly for Tennesseans every day during the pandemic was fired by @GovBillLee to appease those who deny data & research."

According to the Tennessee Department of Health's COVID-19 dashboard, more than 870,000 cases and more than 12,000 related deaths are believed to have occurred in the state. Cases began to fall after COVID-19 vaccines were deployed, however, they have recently begun to rise again. More than 500 new cases were reported last week, the first time since May.

The state's vaccination rate has remained low in comparison to the national rate. Less than half of Tennessee's population — 42.5 percent — has received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine and 38 percent are fully vaccinated.