Dr. Michelle Fiscus, a pediatrician who served as medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization in Tennessee, was fired Monday. She received a package with a muzzle for dogs the week before she was fired, she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday.
Fiscus was at the center of a political battle in Tennessee to vaccinate teenagers against Covid-19. Before she was released, Fiscus posted a memo quoting Tennessee state law about whether minors can get medical care without their parents’ permission.
The backlash to the state lawmakers’ memo has been quick and comes amid the political polarization of vaccines as pundits urge Americans to get their doses and disinformation continues to displace large segments of the population.
Fiscus said a large Amazon package was delivered to her state office addressed to her prior to her termination. In it she found a dog’s muzzle. There was no notice and Fiscus said she contacted Amazon to find out who sent the muzzle. Amazon refused to reveal the sender, Fiscus said.
CNN asked Amazon for a comment.
“At first I thought it was a joke and contacted a few friends, and then when no one was claiming it, I realized it was something that was being sent to me as a kind of message,” said Fiscus.
On the advice of others, she said she reported the incident to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, which CNN has confirmed is investigating the dog-muzzle package.
Fiscus said she said to her husband, “They obviously didn’t know me because they sent me a size 3 for beagles and I’m obviously a pit bull that requires a size 6.” Fiscus said she was keeping the muzzle as a souvenir.
The memo Fiscus sent before she was fired
Fiscus told CNN that it put the memo at the center of the controversy because doctors administering Covid-19 vaccines asked them what to do if unparented minors showed up for vaccination.
In response, and in consultation with the Tennessee Department of Health’s legal advisor, Fiscus said she sent doctors a memo quoting the “Mature Minor Doctrine” that enables healthcare providers to determine whether a child has the ability to to consent to vaccination.
The policy has been in place for 34 years, was public on the Tennessee Department of Health website and was blessed by the governor’s office, she said.
But lawmakers quickly started reaching out to the health department and asking questions about the memo, which some said was undermining parental authority. Fiscus was fired on Monday. The Tennessee Health Department emailed CNN Tuesday that it was unable to comment on personnel matters.
Fiscus said her discharge was a symptom of a trend in many health departments across the country. In her state, she sees a “bow from the Department of Health to the saber-rattling of some of our lawmakers who have found it inappropriate to share the mature sub-doctrine that has been the jurisdiction of the Tennessee Supreme Court since 1987”.
Legislative leaders are now seeking answers from Tennessee Governor Bill Lee regarding his decision to fire the state’s top vaccination expert in the midst of a pandemic.
During a virtual meeting with state MPs Wednesday, Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus chair Raumesh Akbari said the decision to fire Fiscus put the state in a more dangerous position.
“We have all the tools we need to get out of this pandemic, but the failure of leadership at the top makes this difficult,” Akbari said.
Cessation of all vaccination campaigns for adolescent young people
Leading up to her release, Fiscus said the department had shut down all youth vaccines, from Covid-19 communications to HPV reminders and recognition of National Vaccination Month.
The Tennessee Department of Health confirmed Wednesday that it is temporarily suspending all vaccines for adolescents, including those unrelated to Covid-19, and told CNN that the problem was “polarized.”
“We are realizing where we are in the national vaccination discussion, and it’s a polarized discussion, and it is in our state. And that’s why we’re taking this opportunity to evaluate our messages and make sure we’re not harming our efforts, “spokeswoman Sarah Tanksley told CNN on a phone call.
Tanksley said Covid-19 and other childhood vaccines remain available as the Department of Health re-evaluates the vaccination notification process. She said the goal is to make sure the teenager’s parents receive vaccination reminders.
In some cases, vaccination reminders were sent direct to minors whose contact information was listed on the department’s electronic health records, according to a statement from the Tennessee Department of Health to CNN.
Tanksley said she was confident the Department of Health would continue to communicate successfully with parents and providers.
“This is not a month-long evaluation period or anything,” she said.
But dr. Alex Jahangir, chairman of Tennessee’s Davidson County Board of Health, said Wednesday he feared the stop could lead to preventable outbreaks.
Jahangir said the U.S.’s robust immunization program for children had prevented disease outbreaks for decades.
“The best way to save millions of Tennessee people is to promote vaccination, make it easy, and not cling to the rhetoric that vaccination is problematic,” he said. “I think the politicization of vaccination can have a really negative impact on the people of Tennessee and the people of the United States.”
CNN’s Martin Savidge, Angela Barajas, Rebekah Riess, Tina Burnside Keri Enriquez and Lauren Mascaren contributed to this report.