Tennessee House Republican leadership on Wednesday asked Gov. Bill Lee to block the Department of Health from "distributing, promoting or recommending" the COVID-19 vaccine for children under 5, despite widespread support for the vaccine in the medical community.
Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, authored the letter to Lee, calling for him to block distribution until "more clinical evidence is available."
Lee's office acknowledged it had received the letter but has not yet offered further comment. The Department of Health has not yet responded to a Tennessean request for comment.
Children under 5 in the U.S. began receiving the shots this week following safety and effectiveness data reviews from Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those 5 and older already are eligible for the vaccine.
Children have historically faced lower risk than adults from COVID-19, though more than 200 children ages 1-4 have died and 20,000 have been hospitalized with the disease, according to USA Today.
Tennessee reports more than 2 million COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with 187,930 occurring children 10 and under.
More than 26,000 Tennesseans have died from COVID-19, including 14 children aged 10 or younger. The majority of Tennessee's fatalities occurred in patients aged 51 and older.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, joined in signing the letter to Lee.
"We simply cannot recommend injecting an mRNA vaccine into children who have never been at serious risk from death or hospitalization from COVID-19," Zachary wrote. "We do not know the short-term and long-term impact on their development and overall health."
Zachary said parents who want the vaccine could seek it out from a private doctor but called on Lee to block local health departments from administering the shot to children under 5.
The proposed move would decrease the number of vaccine providers available to families with young children in the state, as the department operates 89 primarily rural county health departments. Tennessee's larger, urban health departments operate independently.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said in a statement he agreed with Zachary that the state should not be promoting vaccine to children. McNally didn't explicitly call for the state health department to completely stop distribution of vaccines to children.
"The vaccine is widely available and well-known," McNally said. "If a parent and doctor agree the vaccine is an appropriate treatment, that is one thing. But our state government does not need to be promoting this vaccine now that COVID-19 has become endemic.”
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Rachel Mace, professor of clinical pediatrics at Vanderbilt University, said children do face risk of serious illness as a result of the novel coronavirus. Though others may suffer fever, body aches and a wide range of other complications, some require hospitalization, even if they don’t have other underlying medical conditions.
“We’ve had a number of young children in this five-years-of-age-and-younger group require hospitalization because of COVID infection,” Mace said. “That has included children with severe respiratory symptoms that have required oxygen support, sometimes IV (intravenous) fluids, and close monitoring in the hospital.
"It’s difficult to predict which child is going to land in that spectrum between asymptomatic or mild illness versus more severe symptoms.”
Tennessee preordered vaccine stock for youngest kids
The Tennessee Department of Health on Monday said the state had preordered COVID-19 vaccines for the "next available age group" and expected them to be available at local health departments within a few days.
The department has recommended everyone who is eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine to do so.
"Anyone six months of age and older can receive a vaccine," Department of Health spokesperson Bill Christian said. "We are monitoring cases, hospitalizations and deaths and continue to recommend that people follow the precautions against COVID-19 including for everyone who is eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine to do so."
Mace said in her experience, parents have generally been "very enthusiastic" about getting their children vaccinated.
Infections on the rise: COVID-19 infections rising throughout Tennessee, continuing months-long trend
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“When the vaccine became available to the 12- to 17-year-olds we had a strong response of requests for appointments,” Mace said. “With the six-month to 5-year-olds we are anticipating a similar experience.”
Mace said the phones in her office have been “ringing off the hook” as parents call in to schedule appointments.
Vanderbilt physicians are recommending that all their pediatric patients get vaccinated against COVID-19, she said. But, she said, they are respectful of parents’ decisions not to.
“We respect their need for information," Mace said. "We let them know that we’re happy to discuss it with them. We just want to try to help people look at reliable and evidence-based information as they’re struggling with making a decision for their young children.”
Republicans previously pressured department over vaccine ads
This is not the first time lawmakers have complained about the state health department's stance on the COVID-19 vaccine.
Lawmakers threatened to dissolve the department at a meeting General Assembly's Joint Government Operations Committee in July 2021 because of the department's efforts to encourage teenagers to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Later that month, the state fired its top vaccination official, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, over what she claimed was an attempt to appease lawmakers over these concerns.
Zachary is one of several Republican House members who have strongly opposed the COVID-19 vaccine, which has been found safe and effective at protecting against serious COVID-19 illness and death, and other pandemic safety restrictions.
Earlier this year, he helped pass legislation that required certain employers with COVID-19 vaccination mandates to grant exemptions based on medical or religious reasons.
Reach Melissa Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: House GOP to Lee: Stop state health officials from giving kids' COVID vaccine