TN Resumes Most Vaccine Outreach Halted After GOP Hysteria Over Ads Aimed At Kids

Los Angeles , CA - May 14: Alma Sevilla preparers Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine vial at a mobile vaccine clinic held at Roosevelt Park on Friday, May 14, 2021 in Los Angeles , CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles , CA - May 14: Alma Sevilla preparers Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine vial at a mobile vaccine clinic held at Roosevelt Park on Friday, May 14, 2021 in Los Angeles , CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Tennessee is restarting vaccine outreach efforts it halted earlier this month due to a wave of conservative hysteria, but the state is keeping in place a policy against outreach aimed solely at children, the state’s health commissioner said Friday.

COVID-19 vaccine events at schools, which had been paused, will resume, Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said in a press conference. And outreach promoting child vaccinations will resume as well, but with an emphasis on parental decision-making.

“The pause was about making sure that all of our materials — we’re talking about postcard reminders, fliers that go home in registration packets, consent forms, all of the things that deal with childhood immunizations — that they were appropriately directed at parents, not kids,” Piercey said.

The commissioner said the department had taken down 11 social media posts “that depicted a child without a parent.”

The “mature-minor” doctrine, which states that teens 14 and older don’t necessarily need parental permission to be vaccinated, still governs the state’s Department of Health and other health providers in the state, Piercey said.

Piercey said the politician who in large part led an outrage campaign against the health department over vaccine outreach to kids, State Sen. Kerry Roberts (R), was on board with that point, as was Gov. Bill Lee (R).

“We do recognize there are some very unique situations where there are older teenagers that might be in social situations that don’t allow them to have parents come in with them for one reason or the other, so we will be able to continue serving them under the mature-minor doctrine,” Piercey said, after referring to herself as well as the senator and the governor.

However, the state official who was fired after simply restating that longstanding doctrine in a memo, prompting outrage from legislature Republicans, remains out of a job. Piercey said she wouldn’t comment on the firing of Dr. Michelle Fiscus, previously Tennessee’s top vaccine authority.

At a press conference Thursday, Lee acknowledged “personnel changes” at the department of health, but said only that department leaders in state government “are empowered to make personnel decisions.”

Of the vaccine outreach effort, the governor said that “the direction of the department changed with regard to its marketing of those vaccines, to make sure that parents are the deciding factor for children’s vaccinations.”

The pause on vaccine outreach aimed at young people worried public health experts, who were concerned not only about COVID-19 but also other transmissible diseases among children — as well as the adults those kids can infect if they aren’t immunized.

“There was a perception that we were marketing to children, and that totally was against our view about the importance of parental authority,” Piercey said Friday, explaining the pause on vaccine outreach.

She also acknowledged that the change in outreach policy was due to political pushback from state Republicans, even though that pushback was motivated by the decades-old mature-minor policy.

“You will remember back in mid-June, when the Department of Health was asked to come to the Government Operations committee, we were met with quite a bit of resistance — or feedback, I should say — with how we were addressing vaccines in minors,” Piercey said.

“And while it was never the intention of the department to target minors, and the department felt that we were educating, over the course of several conversations — not only in that committee hearing but afterwards — it became pretty apparent that the legislators felt that we were targeting children in those marketing materials.”

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