The Tennessee department of health will reportedly halt all vaccine outreach to teenagers amid a conservative backlash against Covid-19 vaccines for adolescents.
The department’s new guidance, announced in reports and emails reported by the Tennessean, will apply to vaccinations for all diseases – not just Covid-19. If the department issues any information about vaccination, staff will reportedly be required to strip the agency logo from documents.
In a statement to the Guardian, the department did not confirm or deny the reporting.
“Being a trustworthy messenger means we are mindful of hesitancy and the intense national conversation that is affecting how many families evaluate vaccinations in general,” a department spokesman said.
“Tennessee is on solid footing when it comes to childhood immunisations and will continue to keep information and programming in place for parents. We are simply mindful of how certain tactics could hurt that progress.”
The reporting comes a day after Tennessee’s top vaccine official claimed she was fired to appease conservative lawmakers pushing back against efforts to vaccinate teenagers.
Dr Michelle Fiscus, medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunisation programs at the state health department, issued a scathing statement to local news, alleging she was fired because “some of our politicians have bought into the anti-vaccine misinformation” and stating she was “afraid for my state”.
“It was MY job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against Covid-19,” Fiscus told the Tennessean. “I have now been terminated for doing exactly that.”
A copy of the termination letter reviewed by the paper did not disclose a reason. A spokesman for the department told the Guardian: “We cannot comment on HR or personnel matters.”
The reported decision to end all vaccine outreach means the department will end Covid-19 events on school property and will no longer send postcards or other notices to teenagers reminding them to get their second dose. This outreach will still occur for adults, the Tennessean reported.
Tennessee, like other southern states, lags behind the national average of Covid vaccination with only 38% of the population fully vaccinated. The state is seeing a rise in Covid positives, last week recording 3,214 active cases including 124 of the highly transmissible Delta variant. The overall death toll is 12,596.
Fiscus said she believed she was fired after Republicans took offense to a procedural memo she sent to medical providers explaining the state’s “Mature Minor Doctrine”, a legal mechanism allowing inoculation of minors over 14 without parental consent. The memo, based on a rule in place since a state supreme court decision in 1987, was published on social media.
Fiscus alluded to the growing threat of the Delta variant.
“Each of us should be waking up every morning with one question on our minds: “What can I do to protect the people of Tennessee against Covid-19?”’ she said. “Instead, our leaders are putting barriers in place to ensure the people of Tennessee remain at-risk, even with the delta variant bearing down upon us.”
She added: “When the people elected and appointed to lead this state put their political gains ahead of the public good, they have betrayed the people who have trusted them with their lives.”
The Republican backlash against state efforts to vaccinate eligible school students reached a crescendo in June when several state lawmakers launched hostile questioning of the state health commissioner, Dr Lisa Piercey.
One, Scott Cepicky, accused the department of “peer pressuring” teenagers. Others threatened to repurpose or dissolve the entire department.
The decision to rollback outreach to teenagers was taken directly by Dr Piercey, according to reporting on Tuesday.