JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Tennessee lawmakers delivered very different takes on a now-suspended Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) effort to encourage minors to get vaccinated for COVID.
“What didn’t sit right with the legislature was the fact that the department was marketing to young people, they were actually marketing to 12- and 14-year-olds without saying your parents should be involved in this decision,” State Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) told News Channel 11 Tuesday.
In a hearing, State Sen. Ramesh Akbari (D-Memphis) had a much different take on the situation that reached a peak Tuesday when top vaccination official Dr. Michelle Fiscus announced she’d been fired.
“This is an example of politics leading our public health department,” Akbari said during a media briefing the Democratic caucus conducted via Zoom. “That is a problem that is an abdication of leadership. It is. And I know these words are strong, but that’s because it is infuriating that we have opportunities to protect people.
“We have all the tools we need to move beyond this pandemic, but there is a true lack of leadership from the very top.”
Akbari also suggested the COVID-related changes might also lead to a pullback in “any sort of outreach for vaccinations for youth” — something a local health department official seemed to suggest was possible.
Crowe, who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, and the Republican supermajority in the senate and house made their opinions about any targeted marketing to youth last month.
“I mean it was something that a minor would look at and think, ‘man, I better, I want to go in and do it, it’s cool, this is neat, I want to go do this,'” Crowe said. “But it didn’t mention the parents at all and so we were very concerned about that. I think it’s fine to market it, but, but do it properly.”
Republican lawmakers also criticized the use of the “Mature Minor” doctrine by health departments to allow minors 14 to 17 who are deemed mature enough to make their own health care decisions to get a COVID vaccination without a parent present.
“The Government Operations Committee and the legislature, the House and the Tennessee Senate – became very concerned because we feel that a parent should be involved, especially because it’s an experimental vaccine under emergency use,” Crowe said.
Crowe acknowledged that the doctrine allows for non-consent care to be provided, but he called it “a gray area.”
The one-page doctrine references provision of vaccinations, but it also points out “the legislature has made clear that no minor may obtain an abortion without either parental consent or a court order in exceptional circumstances.”
Crowe said the legislature may take up the vaccination issue.
“You might see some legislation passed this January, because we do have laws relative to minors, that say, you know, your parent has to be there,” he said.
“Substance abuse, the law is that the physician may do that without a parent. There’s some emergency situations like that, but … this experimental vaccine is a different animal and the legislature felt that a parent should be involved.”
Crowe said legislators who pushed for the changes were representing the will of Tennesseans.
“The people we serve are concerned and then we expect the Department of Health to take very much due care when it comes to, you know, getting treatments to minors with respect to the mature minor doctrine. And then we would expect that in any communication that’s sent out in any marketing materials, that is made clear that that parents should be involved in that decision, especially because it’s an experimental vaccine.”
For now, Crowe said it’s mission accomplished.
“And it does appear that already the department has changed their thinking and is trying to mesh with what I think the people of the state through the legislature are sending that message to say.”
Akbari said the message needs to be complete.
“Everyone says vaccine is a personal choice,” she said. “I truly believe that. However, it is the responsibility of the government to provide accurate and complete information, and not to elevate folks who are pushing misinformation conspiracy theories, and downright ignorance.”
As for Fiscus’s departure, Crowe said it was unrelated to the legislature’s concerns.
“She somehow has gotten in trouble and the governor and the Department of Health have let her go,” Crowe said. “And obviously the legislature doesn’t have anything to do with that. I’m not sure what happened there as an executive branch decision.”
Akbari’s Democratic colleague Sen. Jeff Yarboro (Nashville) had a very different opinion.
“This week has been a gigantic step backwards for the state of Tennessee,” Yarboro said. “It’s not just embarrassing. It is actually dangerous to our livelihood of the state.
“At a time when the Delta variant is blowing up, and Tennessee is the fastest growing spot of new infections in the country, the governor allowed a political firing of the person in charge of immunizations. It’s just unconscionable.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tennessee’s 7-day case rate is the nation’s 22nd-highest as of Wednesday. It has increased by slightly less than 50 percent the past week. Florida’s rate has more than doubled during the same period.