Tennessee Republicans — who evidently have a very selective interpretation of what it means to be pro-choice — have successfully pressured the state's Department of Health to end all vaccine outreach directed towards children and teenagers. According to an internal report first circulated on Friday and obtained by The Tennessean this week, the Health Department will now follow a strict set of guidelines: It will be unable to remind teenagers to receive their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and also ban vaccination events on school campuses. The rules will extend to all other vaccines, including the flu shot and HPV vaccine.
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tim Jones elaborated on the guidelines in an email sent on Monday. Jones instructed staff to end all "proactive outreach regarding routine vaccines" and "outreach whatsoever regarding the HPV vaccine." Any "informational sheets or other materials" about vaccination, he added, should have the Health Department's logo removed.
"I just don't even know how to wrap my head around the fact that there are kids who will die of totally, totally preventable diseases," said CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. "With COVID, it's kind of like people dying in a war after the peace treaty has been signed."
Throughout the pandemic, kids have been considered low-risk for death or hospitalization. But Europe has warned that the Delta variant caused a spike in cases among younger people, and in the U.S., more extreme cases are going up in states with low vaccination rates: On Wednesday, CBS News reported that seven children in Mississippi are now hospitalized. Two are on ventilators. And Tennessee, a state lagging behind with just 38.1% of its population fully immunized, has seen a 429% increase in cases over the past 14 days, according to data from The New York Times. Any efforts to halt vaccination could jeopardize the state's chances of reaching anything resembling herd immunity.
Brian Haile, the CEO of Neighborhood Health, a group of nonprofit clinics providing vaccines in and around Nashville, says that the new rules won't just impact children, but disproportionately harm Tennesseans already living in vulnerable areas. "In many rural Tennessee counties, school gymnasiums are one of the few venues large enough to hold a vaccination event indoors, with air conditioning, with enough space for social distancing," Haile told The Tennesseean. "I'm not saying it's impossible, but one of the things this is going to do is really limit access to vaccines in rural areas."
The decision comes amid growing tensions between the Health Department and GOP lawmakers. In June, Dr. Michelle Fiscus — the state's top vaccine official — publicized a document explaining the state's "Mature Minor Doctrine," a state law that lets teenagers aged 14 and older make medical decisions about vaccination without parental consent. "Within days, legislators were contacting TDH asking questions about the memo with some interpreting it as an attempt to undermine parental authority," Fiscus told NBC News. She was fired on Monday.
It seems that the GOP's war on COVID vaccines is taking precedence over saving lives through immunization. And it could quickly ripple into other states, should their health departments cave to similar pressures.
"It is the mission of the Tennessee Department of Health to 'protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of the people of Tennessee,' and protecting them against the deadliest infectious disease event in more than 100 years IS our job," Fiscus wrote in a Tennesseean op-ed on Monday. "Specifically, it was MY job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against COVID-19. I have now been terminated for doing exactly that."