Tennessee Republicans’ actions this week to halt efforts to inform teenagers about the coronavirus vaccine have showcased how vaccine distrust and misinformation — increasingly prevalent in right-wing media set on denying President Joe Biden any political victories — is bursting into the party’s mainstream.
Tennessee’s top immunization official, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, said she was fired this week after distributing a memo that said some teenagers could be eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine without their parents’ consent. The memo was based on a 37-year-old state Supreme Court ruling known as the “mature minor doctrine,” which allows health care providers to treat minors age 14 and above without parental consent if the providers decide those teenagers are mature enough.
Following Fiscus’ firing, the state’s Department of Health went a step further, saying it would halt all advertising about vaccines — not just for Covid-19 — that was aimed at adolescents.
The Tennessean first reported, citing internal documents, that the agency had stopped all Covid-19 vaccine events on school property and would exclude teenagers from receiving the postcards adults will continue to receive reminding them to get their second doses of the vaccine.
Those moves incensed state Democrats, who accused Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s administration of political posturing amid pressure from conservative vaccine opponents.
“We have all the tools we need to get out of this pandemic, but the failure of leadership at the top is making this hard,” Democratic state Sen. Raumesh Akbari told reporters this week.
The controversy around Tennessee’s actions comes amid a worrying spike in coronavirus cases nationwide. Only 48.2% of the country is vaccinated despite the vaccines’ availability for most Americans for months, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And 35 states, including Tennessee, have seen case rates increase by more than 50% compared to the previous week.
The firing of Fiscus and changes to the health department’s approach to vaccines followed pressure from Republican state lawmakers who were angry about Department of Health advertising that they saw as aimed at school-aged children.
In a mid-June state legislative hearing, Republican state Rep. Scott Cepicky said it was “reprehensible” that the department was “targeting” young people with the ads.
“The Department of Health is targeting our youth,” Cepicky told state health commissioner, Dr. Lisa Piercey, in the hearing, as he held up a print-out of a Facebook post that showed a girl with a bandage on her arm, and text saying that Tennesseans over the age of 12 are eligible for vaccines. “When you have advertisements like this with a young girl with a patch on her arm all smiling — we know how impressionable our young people are.”
The Department of Health has since deleted some of its social media posts. And Lee said the state’s efforts to encourage vaccination will be focused solely on adults — not children.
“The state will continue to encourage folks to seek access, adults for their children and adults for themselves to make the choice, the personal choice for a vaccine,” the governor told reporters on June 30, according to a Chattanooga Times Free Press report.
“That’s the responsibility of the state, the responsibility of the Department of Health, that’s what I’m encouraging them to stay focused on,” Lee said then.
This week, faced with national backlash over the state’s moves, Tennessee Republicans have been largely silent.
Lee communications director Laine Arnold did not answer questions about the governor’s role in the firing of Fiscus or charges that his administration’s actions have politicized vaccines in Tennessee.
“While we don’t offer comments on personnel matters, I would be remiss if I didn’t note Tennessee is not a civil service state. It is an at-will employment model which is commonly referred to as ‘serving at the pleasure,'” Arnold said in an email.
Of the Department of Health’s changed vaccine advertising and outreach tactics, Arnold said: “The department is mindful of ensuring parents, not kids, are the intended audience for any outreach efforts regarding medical decisions for children and has simply re-evaluated some tactics like reminder postcards and follow-up communications.”
Cepicky did not respond to an interview request.
Tennessee has one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates. And the more transmissible Delta variant has ripped through nearby states with similarly low vaccination rates, including Arkansas and Missouri.
“We’re losing time here. The Delta variant is spreading, people are dying, we can’t actually just wait for things to get more rational,” Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told CNN Wednesday.
Misinformation about coronavirus vaccines has increasingly worried Biden administration officials. US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy warned Thursday in a 22-page advisory that misinformation is “a serious threat to public health” — a sign of alarm as vaccination rates drop nationwide.
“It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts. Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort,” Murthy said in the memo.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said Thursday on CBS that Tennessee’s actions are “incredibly disturbing” and could hamper efforts to vaccinate children against other preventable diseases, including HPV, measles, mumps and rubella.
“Not only is it disturbing for Covid, but it’s disturbing for all vaccine preventable illness, which we really can’t afford and don’t want to see surging just as we’re trying to tackle this Covid pandemic,” Walensky said.
First lady Jill Biden visited Nashville in late June as part of a tour to promote Covid-19 vaccines. Only a few dozen people showed up to be vaccinated while she was there, local news outlets reported at the time.
“This state still has a little bit of a way to go,” Biden told the crowd there.
Some leading Washington Republicans expressed disbelief on Tuesday at the failure of many GOP voters to get vaccinated.
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah said there had been a “huge human cost to have made vaccinations political.”
“After all, President Trump and his supporters take credit for developing the vaccine,” he said. “Why the heck won’t they take advantage of the vaccine that they received plaudits for having developed it?”
The views of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are shaped by his bout with one of the most feared diseases in children, poliomyelitis, which has since been eradicated by vaccines.
“I’m a huge fan of vaccinations,” the Kentucky Republican said. “If you’re a football fan, we’re in the red zone but we’re not in the end zone yet, and we need to keep preaching that getting the vaccine is important.”
But other Republicans figures have expressed skepticism and distrust over the vaccines — with no blowback from their own party’s leadership.
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson has repeatedly offered misleading rhetoric about vaccines. So have popular figures on the far right, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas last weekend, a pro-former President Donald Trump crowd cheered when a right-wing author said on stage that the Biden administration had fallen short of its targeted percentage for vaccinating Americans.
Right-wing networks, including Fox News, OANN and Newsmax, have used their broadcasts to raise skepticism about the vaccines — which were developed during Trump’s presidency — and to criticize, often misleadingly, the Biden administration’s vaccine outreach efforts.
In Tennessee, local public health officials say they are worried the state’s actions could result in preventable outbreaks of Covid-19 and other illnesses.
Dr. Alex Jahangir, chairman of the Davidson County Board of Health in Tennessee, said Wednesday on CNN that the robust immunization program for children in the US has prevented outbreaks of diseases for decades.
“The best way to save millions of Tennesseans is to encourage vaccinations, to make them easy and not buy into any rhetoric that vaccinations are problematic,” he said. “I think the politicization of vaccinations can truly have a really negative impact on Tennesseans and people around the US.”
This story has been updated with comments from Gov. Bill Lee’s office.
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