MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shelby County’s health department will continue a comprehensive vaccine program for all ages, the agency’s interim director said, even as Tennessee’s leaders may have decided that vaccinations will no longer be promoted to children in the state.
Dr. LaSonya Hall, Interim Health Director for Shelby County, released a statement Wednesday:
Public health and safety is the Shelby County Health Department’s number one priority. Our mission is to promote, protect and improve the health of ALL in Shelby County. In keeping with our mission, we will continue to provide a comprehensive vaccination program for Shelby County residents of all ages.Dr. La Sonya Hall
The statement comes after Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who was the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health, was fired this week amid scrutiny from Republican state lawmakers over her department’s outreach efforts to vaccinate teenagers against COVID-19.
Fiscus penned a blistering 1,200-word response in which she said she is ashamed of Tennessee’s leaders, afraid for her state, and “angry for the amazing people of the Tennessee Department of Health who have been mistreated by an uneducated public and leaders who have only their own interests in mind.”
She also revealed that the Tennessee Department of Health has halted all outreach efforts around any kind of vaccines for children, not just COVID-19 ones, which The Tennessean confirmed through department documents.
However, the Tennessee Department of Health responded Wednesday, telling Nashville station WKRN that the state has “in no way shuttered the immunizations for children program” and remains a “trustworthy source of information” regarding COVID-19 despite claims by a fired state vaccination official.
So far, Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s administration has been silent on the firing. His office and the Health Department declined to comment, citing personnel matters. After an event Tuesday, Lee did not answer questions from reporters.
Democrats blasted the firing, with Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis saying Fiscus was “sacrificed in favor of anti-vaccine ideology.”
Dr. Steve Threlkeld, infectious disease specialist with Baptist Hospital, said while COVID-19 might be top of mind, there are many vaccines that are crucial.
“All of those other illness can’t be forgotten. We need to keep people up to date on those,” Threlkeld said. “This sort of situation where vaccines are sort of delayed or forgotten about would be totally outrageous to those folks old enough in society still. Our parents and grandparents would wouldn’t dream of missing the opportunity of protecting their kids against something like that, in which they lost kids in tragedies, because they didn’t have the vaccines that we do now.”
The Shelby County Health Department will offer fast-track vaccination services for back-to-school Saturday, July 17, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 814 Jefferson.
Only 38% of Tennesseans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, lagging behind much of the nation. Shelby County, along with some other metropolitan counties in the state, has its own health department separate from the counties covered by TDH.
Tennessee Department of Health sent the following statement concerning its immunization efforts:
TDH understands the importance of childhood immunizations, the impacts to overall health for Tennesseans, and we continue to support those outreach efforts. Providing information and access are routine public health functions, and that has not changed. Tennessee has a long and proven history of being one of the top programs in the nation when it comes to childhood immunization rates. Below are some highlights of our success in this area which are due in large part to the outreach efforts from TDH across the state.
• Tennessee ranked among the top 10 states for MMR vaccination coverage among kindergartners during the 2019-2020 school year
• 95.3 percent of 2020-2021 kindergarten students in TN were fully immunized
• For more than a decade Tennessee has above 90 percent coverage of kindergarten students receiving childhood immunizations including DTaP, MMR, Polio, Chicken Pox, Hepatitis B.
TDH wants to remain a trustworthy source of information to help individuals, including parents, make these decisions. And being that trustworthy messenger means we are mindful of hesitancy and the intense national conversation that is affecting how many families evaluate vaccinations in general. We have in no way shuttered the immunizations for children program. We are simply mindful of how certain tactics could hurt that progress.