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Tennessee's Former Vaccine Leader Says She Was Fired Because Politics Trumped Science

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Tennessee is among the states with the lowest COVID vaccination rates, and the number of new daily infections there has tripled in the last three weeks. The state also just fired the person in charge of its immunization program, Dr. Michelle Fiscus. She says she was caught in an ongoing battle between the science and the politics of public health. From member station WPLN, Paige Pfleger reports.

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: Dr. Michelle Fiscus's phone hasn't stopped ringing all week.

MICHELLE FISCUS: My husband, thankfully, is now sort of my PR (laughter) manager.

PFLEGER: He even gives her a hand signal when it's time to switch from one of her back-to-back interviews to the next.

FISCUS: I had no idea how this story would blow up.

PFLEGER: Her story starts back in May. Health care providers were reaching out to Fiscus. They had teenagers showing up for their regular doctor's appointments alone and asking if they could get COVID shots without their parents' permission. Fiscus sent back guidance from health department lawyers. A Tennessee court case decades ago established that, generally, teens 14 years and older don't need parental permission. A month later, Republican lawmakers erupted over that memo and ads encouraging teens to get vaccinated. Senator Janice Bowling saw it as the state trying to go behind parents' backs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JANICE BOWLING: We see things that have gone out through the Department of Health encouraging 12-year-olds to come get a shot. It's very disconcerting to see the letter or memo from Dr. Fiscus.

PFLEGER: Dr. Lisa Piercey, head of the health department and Fiscus' boss, defended the work at the hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LISA PIERCEY: I think there is a sense that we're hiding in dark alleys and whispering to kids, hey, come get vaccinated. We're not. We're not doing that.

PFLEGER: Yet a month later, Piercey fired Fiscus with no reason given. An HR document obtained through a public records request says she was fired because of program deficiencies, failure to follow appropriate procedures and maintain good working relationships. But her personnel file contains no record of that, and Fiscus feels the reason is simpler - politics.

FISCUS: It was felt that I should have had more political awareness and that the memo was unnecessary and it, quote, "poked the bear." And, you know, my response to that is I'm not a political operative.

PFLEGER: Health officials are, to some extent, involved in politics. They're government employees who craft messaging to the public. But Fiscus says during her two years as Tennessee's immunization director, politics were put above science.

FISCUS: We're often put in a situation where we are trying to adhere to CDC guidance, but local government has decided that, politically, that's not necessarily something that they want us to do.

PFLEGER: And pushing back was risky. She and other doctors working in Tennessee's government can be fired at will. This tension has been playing out across the country during the pandemic. About half of the nation's immunization directors have left their posts since 2019, according to the head of their professional association, Claire Hannan.

CLAIRE HANNAN: I always hope - when I hear a program manager has left, I always hope that that's a one-off, that that's, you know, not a canary in a coal mine, so to speak.

PFLEGER: The state hasn't said anything publicly about replacing its vaccine manager, but Michelle Fiscus says she'll continue to work to get the message about vaccines out.

For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.