Top Vaccination Official In Tennessee Says COVID Conspiracy Theories Led To Her Firing

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On Tuesday, the former official in charge of vaccinations for the state of Tennessee claimed her recent firing was politically motivated and rooted in anti-vaccination conspiracy theories pushed by conservative legislators in her state. 

During a CNN interview Tuesday morning, Michelle Fiscus, former medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health, said her state is under the control of lawmakers “who choose to buy in to anti-vaccine rhetoric and conspiracy theory instead of listening to actual science.” 

“I was given a choice to resign or be terminated and I chose to be terminated because I’ve not done anything wrong except inform our physicians of where the guidelines were around vaccinating minors,” she added. 

Fiscus was fired from her state position on Monday without official explanation, the Tennessean reported. In a statement to the outlet following her firing, Fiscus said she was “afraid” for her state and that her firing was related to her recent decision to inform health providers about Tennessee’s “mature minor” doctrine, which permits medical professionals to treat some minors above age 14 without their parents’ consent.

During a hearing in mid-June, Republican lawmakers in Tennessee who oppose mass vaccination efforts targeted Fiscus directly for her memo about vaccinating minors against COVID-19

On Tuesday, Fiscus claimed leaders at the Tennessee Department of Health are succumbing to political pressure and hindering all vaccination efforts ― not just efforts to get children the coronavirus vaccine. 

“In order to appease the legislators that were upset about this memo, our leadership at the department of health has instructed the department of health to no longer do outreach around immunizations for children of any kind,” Fiscus said. The state is effectively barring messaging about infant vaccinations and vaccines for HPV, as well, she said. 

“Our leadership has been toxic to work under and morale within the department is poor. There are state workers all over the state who fear for their jobs because they want to do the right thing and the administration is much more interested in politics.” 

In Tennessee, the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs serves in the department of health at the behest of the governor. Fiscus said her role allowed for her to be fired without cause, but that firing her to curb youth vaccinations is a troubling sign for public health in Tennessee. 

“In general, our state is not among the most progressive when it comes to listening to scientists,” Fiscus said. 

“My job is to protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of Tennesseans, and that includes getting them vaccinated against COVID-19 and helping them understand the science around those vaccines.”

Tennessee’s vaccination rate lags significantly behind most other U.S. states, deeply concerning health officials who worry Tennessee is fueling the spread of the highly infectious delta variant. Slightly less than half of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while only 38% of Tennesseans are.

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