The Tennessee Health Department is stopping all vaccine-related outreach to minors amid pressure from Republicans in the state and rising coronavirus cases.
The halted education efforts concern not only the COVID-19 vaccine, which the state has struggled to roll out, but all preventatives aimed at people under 18 for diseases like the flu or HPV. People over the age of 12 are eligible for coronavirus vaccines. If the agency does distribute information about vaccines, Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey informed staff to remove the department’s logo from any materials, the Tennessean reports.
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tim Jones told staff to make “no proactive outreach regarding routine vaccines.” Any vaccination drives held at schools will cease, as will the mailing of postcard reminders for inoculations, despite the previous success of both types of outreach. An internal report warns that the efforts could be “potentially interpreted as solicitation to minors.”
A spokesperson for the department told the Tennessean, “Tennessee is on solid footing when it comes to childhood immunizations and will continue to keep information and programming in place for parents.”
The number of new coronavirus cases in Tennessee has increased by more than 100 percent in the past two weeks, from 177 cases per day to 418, thanks in part to the presence of the more contagious and deadly Delta variant. The positivity rate has also more than doubled.
Only 38 percent of Tennessee residents are fully vaccinated, trailing far behind the nationwide figure of 52 percent. The health department estimated that the state would not reach 50 percent vaccination until March 2022 if the current pace continues, the Tennessean reports.
Around the same time that news of the curtailed work broke, the top vaccine official in the state was fired. Dr. Michelle Fiscus, former medical director for immunization at the state’s health department, alleges she lost her job over efforts to inoculate teenagers.
“It was my job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against COVID-19. I have now been terminated for doing exactly that,” she wrote in a statement.
Republican lawmakers in the state held a fractious hearing in June during which they publicly upbraided the health commissioner and threatened to eliminate her department entirely over its advertisements urging teenagers to be vaccinated. The department ended social media campaigns promoting vaccinations in response.