Tennessee’s former top vaccine official Michelle Fiscus has released a scathing response to her termination memo, which she says she never saw prior to its release to journalists on Thursday. Fiscus also is rebutting all claims against her and doubling down on assertions that the Tennessee Department of Health is bending to political demands.
With reference to emails, texts and phones calls she received from department leadership leading up to her firing, Fiscus described the friendly relationships she had with her colleagues, including those who handed down her termination, Chief Medical Officer Tim Jones and state epidemiologist John Dunn.
Fiscus said Dunn and Jones supported her on multiple occasions after informing her that her job may be at risk, telling her “she belonged at TDH” and even bringing her baked scones and an orchid on July 3, according to her statement. (The scones and orchid were found at her desk alongside the anonymous package that contained a muzzle. She said Dunn denied sending the muzzle.)
“First, let me say how disappointed I am in people whom I considered friends and mentors in the Department of Health,” she wrote, saying Jones recruited her to join the Tennessee Immunization Program in 2018 and frequently confided in her throughout the pandemic response.
Fiscus was first warned about losing her job by Dunn and Jones in late June, after a hearing with state legislators in which a handful of Republican lawmakers expressed outrage over the department’s efforts to educate and encourage teens to get vaccinated against COVID-19. She was ultimately terminated from her position on Monday, which she says was politically motivated to appease GOP leaders.
In response to allegations by the health department contained in her termination memo, Fiscus released three recent job reviews that often cited her work as “outstanding” and “exceeds expectations,” with no mention of the work spats or mismanagement outlined in the letter provided by the Tennessee Department of Health.
She also further explained her role with a nonprofit the health department launched as a vaccination coalition, saying Tennessee was one of the only two states in the Southeast without one and that she frequently worked with department leadership on the initiative, which received high praise — Jones called it “very successful” in a job performance review in 2019 — internally.
In her statement, she confirmed she sought federal relief funds to go toward the nonprofit, which she said is completely appropriate:
"Leadership at TDH was well aware of my work to convene ImmunizeTN and celebrated those efforts. I convened stakeholders who went on to incorporate as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. I am not on the board of directors, I am not on the payroll, and I serve in only an ex-officio advisory capacity to the board. The coalition has funding from the American Academy of Pediatrics and it is true that I was going to use CDC funding to support the work of the coalition to promote immunizations and provide education to healthcare providers and to the public. ImmunizeTN also has a social media presence which is used to spread pro-vaccine messaging and refute anti-vaccine mis- and disinformation. The CDC provides funding to state immunization programs to support this work and encourages states to provide financial support to their immunization coalitions. There is no conflict of interest as I do not benefit materially from the coalition. I would argue that the refusal of TDH to allow the use of CDC funds to support the work of this coalition further obstructs our ability to combat vaccine misinformation and overcome vaccine hesitancy."
Fiscus also called out evolving operations within the Tennessee Department of Health to halt childhood vaccination outreach directly to minors, instead attempting to divert information to parents while under pressure from GOP lawmakers, who accused them of accosting kids about getting vaccinated without parental consent.
The health department has been in damage control mode since Fiscus started her national media tour amid public outcry of her firing. Officials have said they understand the importance of childhood vaccinations and promoted favorable statistics of vaccination rates in public schools that happened under Fiscus’ leadership. The department has since halted vaccination drives in schools, all outreach directly to minors and overall has shifted its vaccine operations at the state level, Fiscus said and emails corroborate.
“It is interesting that the talking points provided [by the health department] discuss the past accomplishments of the program, all of which were under the direction of myself and my immediate predecessor and have absolutely nothing to do with the current concerns regarding the actions taken by Dr. Piercey and a handful of outraged and uninformed legislators,” Fiscus concluded.