Tennessee to stop outreach promoting adolescent vaccines for all diseases including COVID-19: report

Tennessee plans to end its outreach promoting vaccines for adolescents against all diseases, including COVID-19, after criticism over immunization efforts directed toward minors, the Tennessean reported on Tuesday. 

An internal report and agency emails obtained by the newspaper showed that the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) intends to stop holding COVID-19 vaccine events on school property. Department leaders have also instructed staff to remove the agency logo from any documents on adolescent vaccines.  

The health department also plans to make changes to stop sending postcards and notices to teenagers to remind them to get their second COVID-19 dose but will continue the practice for adults. The internal report said the department decided to nix the reminders for adolescents so they are not “potentially interpreted as solicitation to minors.”

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The internal report, circulated on Friday, cites that the conclusions to stop outreach, including at schools, came directly from Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, the Tennessean reported.

Following the report, TDH Chief Medical Officer Tim Jones clarified in an email obtained by the newspaper that staff should administer “no proactive outreach regarding routine vaccines” and “no outreach whatsoever regarding the HPV vaccine.” 

"Any kinds of informational sheets or other materials that we make available for dissemination should have the TDH logo removed," Jones wrote.

The email also instructed staff not to conduct “pre-planning” for flu shot events at schools, noting that only the Tennessee Department of Education should distribute information on back-to-school vaccinations, according to the newspaper.

The health department, like others across the nation, had previously promoted childhood vaccinations against several diseases, including the flu and HPV.   

Bill Christian, a TDH spokesperson, would not confirm to The Hill the report by the Tennessean about halting all outreach promotion of vaccines to children, but alluded to "market research regarding vaccine hesitancy ... to understand how Tennesseans feel as this process evolves."

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“TDH understands the importance of childhood immunizations, the impacts to overall health for Tennesseans and we continue to support those outreach efforts,” Christian said.

Christian said it is “mindful of hesitancy and the intense national conversation that is affecting how many families evaluate vaccinations in general.” 

"That is why we pursued an initial round of market research regarding vaccine hesitancy and why we are planning another round of market research to understand how Tennesseans feel as this process evolves," he said, without specifying what the market research entailed.

“Tennessee is on solid footing when it comes to childhood immunizations and will continue to keep information and programming in place for parents,” the statement continued. “We are simply mindful of how certain tactics could hurt that progress.”

TDH spokeswoman Sarah Tanksley confirmed to the Tennessean that COVID-19 vaccination events at schools were ending partly due to low demand and “out of an abundance of caution” because they were “perceived by some to give the wrong impression regarding parental consent.”

She added that “no decisions had been made” about providing other shots at schools and noted that the department always meant for the reminder notices to go to parents, not minors. 

The Tennessean’s report comes after the state’s top vaccination official told the newspaper on Monday that she was terminated allegedly as a scapegoat to appease state lawmakers. Michelle Fiscus’s firing came after she faced backlash for sending a letter to providers about a doctrine that allows those aged 14 or older to get vaccinated without parental permission.

Health experts have said unvaccinated people, including children and adolescents, are at higher risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19 that could lead to hospitalizations and deaths. 

Tennessee has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with 38 percent of its total population fully vaccinated and 43 percent with at least one dose, according to the Mayo Clinic.  

At the same time, the average daily COVID-19 cases are climbing nationwide, with a 94 percent increase from two weeks ago. Tennessee has seen a fivefold increase in its average in two weeks, with a daily rate of 467 new cases, according to The New York Times