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Tennessee vaccinations turn political: Democrats denounce state halting programs that Republicans say bypassed parents

The state Department of Health (TDH) is halting “adolescent outreach” for all vaccines, not just Covid-19, the Tennessean daily newspaper reported on Tuesday, citing “internal report and agency emails” they obtained. This includes Covid-19 vaccination drives on school property and sending out reminders for teens to get their second dose of the jab.

Postcards and reminder emails will be sent to parents, so that they won’t be “potentially interpreted as solicitation to minors,” according to a TDH report cited by the Nashville-based daily. 

The decision was reportedly made by Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey personally, and comes after the Monday firing of Dr. Michelle Fiscus, which the paper described as “Tennessee’s former top vaccine official.”

Fiscus claimed the decision was due to pressure from Republican state lawmakers who had embraced “misinformation” about the Covid-19 vaccines. She also complained to CNN about a “toxic” environment at work.

At a legislative hearing in June, some GOP lawmakers accused TDH of circumventing parents and pressuring minors to get the vaccine using the school environment. Some conservatives said Fiscus was pushing to vaccinate teens without parental knowledge or approval, using what is known as the Mature Minor Doctrine, which typically says children 15 or older can consent to medical treatment.

According to the Tennessean, TDH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tim Jones told staff they should conduct “no proactive outreach regarding routine vaccines” and “no outreach whatsoever regarding the HPV [Human papillomavirus] vaccine.” All school vaccination information should come from the Department of Education instead.

The paper’s report caused widespread outrage among Democrats. Former first daughter turned public health advocate Chelsea Clinton called the policy change “horrifying” with potentially “tragic consequences,” and insisted there was “no reasonable or moral defense” of it.

“Trumpism and right-wing anti-science extremism is harming and killing Americans,” declared Mother Jones writer David Corn, while Howard Fineman of the Yale School of Medicine called Republicans “pro-death & anti-science.”

“Does Tennessee really want kids not to be vaccinated against measles, mumps or meningitis,” Congressman Ted Lieu (D-California) wondered on Twitter.

“We’ve governed by nut-jobs with the intellectual skill sets of five year olds on sugar highs,” lamented Obama administration staffer and Democrat candidate for Congress Christopher Hale, who pointed out the halting of outreach applies to polio vaccines as well.

“They’re now, like, pro-polio?” tweeted MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.

However, the CDC recommends polio vaccinations starting at 2 months, with subsequent doses through age 6. Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccines are typically given starting at 12 months, while the CDC recommends meningitis shots starting at age 11. None of these would apply to school outreach to teens.

The Tenneseean report did include a statement by TDH spokesperson Sarah Tanksley, who said the agency was responding to “an intense national conversation that is affecting how many families evaluate vaccinations in general.”

“Tennessee is on solid footing when it comes to childhood immunizations and will continue to keep information and programming in place for parents,” Tanksley said. “We are simply mindful of how certain tactics could hurt that progress.”

Covid-19 vaccinations at schools are being discontinued in part because of low demand, she added, but also “out of an abundance of caution” because they were “perceived by some to give the wrong impression regarding parental consent.”

“While the location may change, the effort to vaccinate individuals who choose to receive it continues,” Tanksley said.

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