If only the coronavirus could be shot with a gun. Or maybe if it was transgender, or could be heard espousing a belief in systemic racism somewhere near impressionable youth. Maybe then Tennessee’s Republican leaders would really want to fight it. Alas, it is only a virus that has killed 12,616 Tennesseans as of this writing — and more than 600,000 Americans in total. And so here we are.
On Tuesday afternoon, not quite 24 hours after The Tennessean’s Brett Kelman broke the news that the state had fired its top vaccine official amid Republican attacks on the Tennessee Department of Health for encouraging teens to get vaccinated, he reported that the state will be retreating from all youth-focused vaccine outreach — not just related to the COVID-19, but also to other diseases, from the flu to HPV.
The TDOH tried to fight the firestorm Tuesday by emphasizing the state's successes in getting young people vaccinated against a variety of diseases. A spokesperson said the department is "simply being mindful of hesitancy and the intense national conversation that is affecting how many families evaluate vaccinations in general and how certain tactics could hurt that progress."
Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who was the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at state health department, has said that her termination came after lawmakers seized on a memo she wrote to provide guidance to clinicians on how the Mature Minor Doctrine — a legal principle created by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1987 that allows physicians to treat certain minors ages 14 to 18 without parental consent — applied to COVID vaccinations in Tennessee. The contents of that memo, she said, had been pre-approved by Gov. Bill Lee and the Department of Health's in-house attorney.
Fiscus was in high demand on cable news on Tuesday, where she described a “toxic” work environment.
“There are state workers all over the state that fear for their jobs because they just want to do the right thing and the administration is much more interested in politics," Fiscus said during an interview on CNN.
This all falls under the category of shocking-but-not-surprising. Gov. Lee hasn't exactly gone full Trump during the pandemic — I don’t recall him using the word “hoax” — but he has resisted guidance from public health officials. He never instituted a statewide mask mandate, for instance, despite public pleas from scores of doctors and public health experts. It was almost a year ago now that even the Trump White House was urging Lee to take more serious action.
As for vaccines, the governor has seemingly tried to walk the fine line between anti-vaxxism and the obvious fact that you should get the vaccine. He got the jab himself back in March, but he did it just as quietly as he could, and when pressed to say whether he’d gotten it or not, he said that he had but it was a personal choice. That’s true, of course. It is a personal choice. And on this side of a catastrophic pandemic, you might think the governor would be encouraging people to make the one that will protect them and others from COVID-19.
More recently, Lee pissed off people across the political spectrum when he announced that the state will be giving away thousands of airline vouchers to tourists who want to make a trip to our addled state.
Republicans in the legislature have arguably been worse, demagoguing instead of speaking clearly to the largely rural and conservative Tennesseans who are resistant to getting vaccinated.
Perhaps the best way to see this in its infuriating fullness is to look at what else is going on in Tennessee at the same time. Lee spent the weekend at the border. Not the Tennessee-Georgia border, no — the U.S. border with Mexico. There are currently 300 members of the Tennessee National Guard down there. Lee says he saw “the most severe border crisis we’ve seen in 20 years.” For some reason, this required input from an HVAC millionaire who is the governor of a non-border state.
Earlier this month, new state laws passed this year by the legislature went into effect. Among them: a batch of anti-trans laws and one instituting the long-sought dream of right-wing Tennesseans — permitless carry.
So with COVID-19 cases rising again at the state and local level and variants of the virus popping up, Tennessee has made it easier to carry a gun and harder to learn about vaccines.