On Tuesday, Dr. Michelle Fiscus warned that she had been fired after properly answering a question about whether teenagers are eligible for vaccinations without their parents’ consent (that answer is “yes”). The way in which Tennessee Republicans bullied Dr. Fiscus from her position for the act of telling kids the truth is emblematic of the way in which public health officials across the nation are being harassed by the lie-spreading anti-vaxx machine that is now the Republican Party and right-wing media.
But as it turns out, getting rid of the head of vaccinations for the state health department was only the tip of what could be the nation’s sickest iceberg. Because in the wake of Dr. Fiscus’ removal, Tennessee health officials have dropped all vaccine outreach, and ending vaccination events that were planned at public schools. That’s all vaccines. That doesn’t just mean that kids are getting an opportunity to be vaccinated against COVID-19. That’s measles. That’s diphtheria and tetanus. That’s polio.
According to the Tennessean, the state department of health is halting all vaccine outreach to children specifically because of “pressure from Republican state lawmakers.” Even if someone directly requests information on vaccines, staff have been instructed to strip the state logo from any replies so that nothing can be considered official. In addition to ending vaccination events, the state will stop sending out reminder cards for vaccinations, or providing teenagers with information on protecting themselves from COVID-19.
Thanks to conspiracy-mongering Republicans, Tennessee has become the first official anti-vaxx state.
As The New York Times reports, Dr. Fiscus is just one of at least 181 public health officials in 38 states who have been forced from their jobs, or pressured into resignation, by Republicans politicizing COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccinations.
“It’s just a huge symptom of just how toxic the whole political landscape has become,” Dr. Fiscus said on Tuesday. “This virus is apolitical—it doesn’t care who you are or where you live or which president you preferred.”
But that’s not what the Tennessee department of health is saying. Questioned about their vaccine stance, the agency issued a statement that says: “Being that trustworthy messenger means we are mindful of hesitancy and the intense national conversation that is affecting how many families evaluate vaccinations in general. We are simply mindful of how certain tactics could hurt that progress.”
In other words—because Republicans are pushing back against vaccines, we’ve stopped supporting vaccines. This is not an apolitical position. It’s a position that says when the truth is confronted by lies, the truth should back down so as not to offend the liar.
Stopping vaccine outreach and halting in-school vaccine events will have one, clear, easily definable result—needless death or long-term illness for children who do not get the vaccines that should have been not just available to them, but promoted to them. What the Tennessee department of health knows, and what Tennessee Republicans also know, is that COVID-19 represents a dire threat to children and adults. Silence and withdrawal in the face of that threat is not acting to preserve the public health by any stretch of the imagination. It’s surrender. It’s cowardice.
The Tennessee health department is deliberately removing the names of those under 18 from its mailing list so that they don’t receive any postcards updating them on vaccine efficacy or vaccination events. According to the department this is being done so that they are not “potentially interpreted as solicitation to minors.” This is a term usually reserved for illegal activities. Tennessee is treating sending kids information on vaccines as if it’s the same as trying to lure them behind the barn for sex.
Having banished all discussion of vaccines, it’s unclear whether Tennessee will be sending out postcards on leeches, or will simply be bringing barbers to school to directly handle medically required bloodletting. In either case, it’s clear they’ve allowed themselves to be bullied into the Middle Ages because they’re more concerned about offending Republicans in the state legislature than genuinely safeguarding the health of the state.
Complaints about the politicization of COVID-19 don’t adequately capture what’s happening. Democrats aren’t politicizing the virus, Republicans are, and have been doing so from the outset. Accurately reporting on a public health threat and advising people to take precautions, vs. downplaying that threat and actively interfering in treatment is not “right vs. left.” It is, for want of better terms, right vs. wrong. Good vs. evil. America vs. domestic terrorists that are trying to do the nation harm.