Who is Dr Michelle Fiscus? Tennessee top vax expert fired as GOP halts shots for kids

Democrats in the state Senate issued a statement saying it will 'will put more lives at risk', citing a rise in Delta Plus variant cases


                            Who is Dr Michelle Fiscus? Tennessee top vax expert fired as GOP halts shots for kids
Dr Michelle Fiscus (Twitter, Joe Readle/Getty Images)

The Republican Party has taken its anti-vaccine stance to a whole new level in the state of Tennessee. On July 13, the  Tennessee Department of Health was ordered to halt all vaccine outreach efforts for children, after mounting pressure from Republican lawmakers. The anti-vax drive has also forced out Dr Michelle Fiscus, the state's top vaccine official. 

Ever since the Covid-19 vaccine was launched, the GOP has begun a nationwide campaign to discredit the lifesaving measure, even though they have campaigned for Trump to get credit for "launching" them. For years, the GOP has been on the warpath against science, best seen in Trump's claims of bleach, and hydroxychloroquine as Covid-19 cures. As most GOP Congressmembers have refused to get their shot, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has kept mask mandates in place in the House. 

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The GOP was also quick to attack Biden's proposals for a door-to-door campaign to increase vaccinations, lying it would allow the government "to take guns and Bibles". So far, the battle has only been against the Covid-19 vaccine, but on July 13, the party extended its campaign to all vaccines. A major victim of the Tennessee GOP's move was Dr Fiscus, whose firing is a major setback for the battle against Covid-19.

First Lady Jill Biden speaks at a Pop-Up Vaccination site at Ole Smoky Distillery on June 22, 2021, in Nashville, Tennessee. (Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Who is Dr Michelle Fiscus?

Having graduated from the Indiana University School Of Medicine in 1994, Dr Fiscus quickly established herself as a leading pediatrician in Murfreesboro. In 2019, she was tapped to become Medical Director of the Vaccine-Preventable Diseases and Immunization Program in Tennessee. In that role, Dr Fiscus irked the GOP by releasing a memo to healthcare providers allowing minors to get the Covid-19 vaccine without parental consent. Reportedly, she left her private practice for the government because "of her fatigue in coping with patients' families who were skeptical of vaccines."

Tennessee is one of the few states in the US with a "mature minor" doctrine that allows minors to make basic healthcare decisions by themselves. In May 2021, Dr Fiscus sought a memo on the legality of applying the doctrine to Covid-19 vaccines. She then sent that memo out to medical providers. Later that month, she was hauled up in front of a committee over the memo, News 4 Nashville reported. Dr Ficus confirmed that the memo was simply sharing a decades-old state policy, but it seemed to be too much for the GOP.

"Within days, legislators were contacting TDH (Tennessee Department of Health) asking questions about the memo," she told CNN. She called her termination by the state "bizarre", adding, "it is just astounding to me how absolutely political and self-centered our elected people are here and how very little they care for the people of Tennessee." To make matters worse, the Health Department has now been called to testify in front of the state legislature. The move has led the TDH to shut down all its vaccination programs, not just the one targeted towards Covid-19. 

A pediatrician gives an HPV vaccination to a 13-year-old girl at the Miller School of Medicine on September 21, 2011, in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Tennessee shuts down all vaccination programs

Amidst the political pressure from lawmakers, the TDH has decided to halt all vaccination outreach programs for the time being. Emails obtained by the Tennessean show that all adolescent vaccine programs will be impacted by the shutdown. In case any vaccine-related information needs to go out, the TDH will have to remove its logo from all documentation, the Tennsessean reported. 

Health Commissioner Dr Lisa Piercey has also decided to halt Covid-19 vaccine drives and abandon sending notices to teens when their second shot is due. Adults will still receive their notices, but not teens, which could be "potentially interpreted as solicitation to minors," a report viewed by the Tennsessean says. The report was first sent to health department staff on July 9, before being resent on July 12. 

The firing of Dr Ficus has already turned into a game of political football. Democrats in the state Senate issued a statement saying it will "will put more lives at risk", citing a rise in the number of cases due to the Delta Plus variant. "A well-respected member of the public health community was sacrificed in favor of anti-vaccine ideology," said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, the chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Anti-vaccine activists hold signs in front of the Massachusetts State House during a protest against Governor Charlie Baker's vaccine mandate on August 30, 2020, in Boston, Massachusetts. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

'This. Is. Insane.'

News of Dr Fiscus' firing and the halt of all vaccine programs quickly went viral on Twitter. Chelsea Clinton tweeted, "Halting vaccine outreach - including not reminding teens to return for their second #covid19 shot - is horrifying and I worry will have tragic consequences for kids, families and public health in Tennessee and beyond. There is no reasonable or moral defense of the below." "This. Is. Insane. Does Tennessee really want kids not to be vaccinated against measles, mumps or meningitis?" asked Rep Ted Lieu. 



 

 



 

Another person said, "Responsible parents should be moving their school aged children the hell away from Tennessee." One person joked, "Tennessee’s governor is working hard today to make polio great again." San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro tweeted, "This is extremely dangerous. The radicalization of the Republican Party is putting our children’s health at risk. If Tennessee won’t do so, the federal government must ensure families in the state have adequate information about and access to immunizations." One person tweeted, "Dr. Michelle Fiscus was Tennessee’s Vaccine Chief. GQP officials there fired her because she was trying get residents and their children vaccinated. Literally killing their own voters to trying owning the libs."



 

 



 



 

 



 

Tennessee currently lags behind all other states when it comes to Covid-19 vaccination rates. According to state data, only 38% of Tennesseans are fully vaccinated. The move is not just expected to lead to a surge in Covid-19 cases, but could also leave children vulnerable to diseases like measles, rubella, and polio, for which vaccine campaigns have been running for decades.

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