Tennessee's top vaccination official, who says she was fired this week amid Republican lawmakers' disapproval of her promoting Covid-19 vaccines to teenagers, received a dog muzzle at work only days before her ouster.
Dr. Michelle Fiscus’ husband, Brad, alleged that the muzzle, which came by mail, was intended to keep his wife from talking.
"Someone wanted to send a message to tell her to stop talking," he said.
The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security is investigating.
Fiscus has said that her firing on Monday was a political decision made to placate lawmakers who disapprove of the Department of Health’s outreach to get teens vaccinated for Covid-19.
In an interview with MSNBC host Chris Hayes on Tuesday, Fiscus said her job was to roll out the Covid vaccine “across the state and to make sure that that was done equitably and in a way that any Tennessean who wanted to access that vaccine would be able to get one.”
“I have now been terminated for doing exactly that,” she wrote in an early statement to the Tennessean.
New state documents, however, say Fiscus was fired because she was a poor leader and manager.
Tennessee’s chief medical officer, Dr. Tim Jones, reasoned that Fiscus should be removed partly due to complaints about her leadership approach and how she handled a letter about vaccination rights of minors that prompted outrage among Republican lawmakers, state records show.
Jones wrote in a letter dated July 9 that Fiscus deserved to be fired because of “failure to maintain good working relationships with members of her team, her lack of effective leadership, her lack of appropriate management, and her unwillingness to consult with superiors and other internal stakeholders on (Vaccine Preventable Diseases and Immunization Program) projects.”
Jones' letter, which was written to Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, also alleged that Fiscus did not delegate enough and requested to use department funding for a nonprofit she founded.
Brad Fiscus, however, circulated three of the last four years’ worth of performance reviews deeming his wife's work “outstanding,” including a work assessment from October 2019 through September 2020. The couple didn’t know about the July 9 letter until Thursday and questioned why it wasn’t used at Ficus's firing Monday, Brad Fiscus said.
Fiscus's 2019-20 performance review said that she had exceeded expectations "in managing all programmatic activities" and that she had "appropriately and effectively advocated for her team." It also noted that her program had "key transitions" that had been "managed well."
Outrage over teen vaccine outreach
Fiscus said tension with GOP lawmakers escalated when she publicized a document on Tennessee’s “Mature Minor Doctrine,” a state Supreme Court ruling from 1987 that states Tennesseans 14 to 18 years old may be treated “without parental consent unless the physician believes that the minor is not sufficiently mature to make his or her own health care decisions.”
The health department later stopped all immunization outreach to minors — and not just for coronavirus, email records show, which were first reported by The Tennessean.
The shift came two weeks after a June legislative hearing at which Republican lawmakers admonished the agency for how it was communicating about the vaccine, including through online posts.
During the hearing, Republican state Rep. Scott Cepicky held up a printout of a Facebook ad saying teens were eligible, and he called the agency’s advocacy “reprehensible” and likened it to peer pressure.
Only 38 percent of Tennessee's population is vaccinated, putting the state in the bottom 10 for vaccination rates. Covid-19 cases have begun rising again, with the state’s average of daily new cases up 451.4 in two weeks, per John Hopkins University researchers.
In a statement Thursday, Health Commissioner Piercey said there has been “no disruption to the childhood immunization program or access to the Covid-19 vaccine while the department has evaluated annual marketing efforts intended for parents.”
In an email to NBC News this week, Bill Christian, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, did not comment on reports that the state had halted all immunization outreach to minors but said that the department "wants to remain a trustworthy source of information to help individuals, including parents, make these decisions," Christian wrote.
He added that an "intense national conversation" is affecting how many families evaluate vaccinations in general.
"We are simply mindful of how certain tactics could hurt that progress," Christian wrote.