September 2021 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A top health official in Tennessee says she was fired after conservatives attacked her for reminding residents that state law allows mature minors to receive COVID vaccines without parental consent.

Dr. Michelle Fiscus was let go in July from her position as the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH).

Fiscus told NBC News that she had been told that part of her job would involve ensuring that anyone in Tennessee who wanted a vaccine could get one. But when Fiscus pointed to a 1987 decision from the Tennessee Supreme Court finding that minors between 14 and 18 years old may receive medical care “without parental consent unless the physician believes that the minor is not sufficiently mature to make his or her own health care decisions,” far-right forces in the state mobilized against her.

“Within days, legislators were contacting TDH asking questions about the memo with some interpreting it as an attempt to undermine parental authority,” Fiscus told NBC’s Chris Hayes. Her actions were also labeled “reprehensible” by state Rep. Scott Cepicky (R-Maury County).

 Prior to the complaints, Tennessee had been conducting a campaign to ensure that young people in the state got vaccinated. Components included ads showing a teen with a bandage on his arm and the tagline, “Tennesseans 12+ are eligible for vaccines. Give COVID-19 vaccines a shot.”

Republican lawmakers insisted that not only should the outreach efforts be shut down but that the state immediately halt all efforts covering all vaccine outreach aimed at teens, such as holding vaccine events at schools.

Health Department officials subsequently announced that they would drop all efforts aimed at adolescents.

The Tennessee Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics criticized the move in a statement.

“Actions that weaken Tennessee’s overall public health readiness are clearly a step in the wrong direction at the wrong time,” chapter President Dr. Anna Morad said in the statement.

Tennessee and several other Bible Belt states have been plagued by low vaccination rates, and polls show that white evangelical Christians remain among the most vaccine-hesitant. As the Delta variant took hold over the summer, some state officials finally decided it was time to start promoting vaccines.

After a spike in COVID cases in Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey (R) told reporters, “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down. Almost 100 percent of the new hospitalizations are with unvaccinated folks. And the deaths are certainly occurring with the unvaccinated folks. These folks are choosing a horrible lifestyle of self-inflicted pain.”

But other GOP officials elected to do the opposite. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to cut off state funding and stop paying staff sal­aries for any public school system that implemented a mask mandate for students. Several school officials indicated they would defy DeSantis and require masks.

Florida officials have also expanded a voucher program so that students who attend public schools with mask mandates can go to private institutions at taxpayer expense.

In Louisiana, where Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) in August reinstated an indoor mask mandate, Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry issued a memo advising people how they could avoid mask and vaccine mandates. Landry recommended that vaccine resistors claim a religious exemption.

“Louisiana law offers broad and robust protections for students’ and parents’ religious and philosophical objections to certain state public health policies. I support your religious liberties and right to conscientiously object,” Landry wrote.

At the time Landry issued the memo, Louisiana was experiencing an explosion in COVID cases and hospitalizations. Only 37% of the population is fully vaccinated.