Meghan Mangrum Nashville Tennessean June 16, 2021
Some lawmakers are taking aim at the Tennessee Department of Health and the state's top health official for encouraging minors to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Several Republican lawmakers questioned state Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey during a joint Government Operations Committee meeting Wednesday, lodging complaints and threatening to dissolve or "reconstitute" the department's responsibilities in response to its efforts to vaccinate Tennesseans against the deadly coronavirus.
Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, accused the department of "peer pressuring" teenagers and young adults to get the COVID-19 vaccine with or without their parents' permission.
"We know how impressionable our young people are. For a department of ours to make it seem like you need a vaccine ... to fit in is peer pressure applied by the state of Tennessee," Cepicky said. "Personally, I think it's reprehensible that you would do that, that you would do that to our youth."
At issue are some of the ways the department is encouraging Tennesseans to get the vaccine, such as using flyers and advertisements featuring children and phrases like “Give COVID-19 vaccines a shot” or “Tennesseans 12+ eligible for vaccines”.
"It looks like the Department of Health is marketing to children and it looks like you’re advocating," state Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, told Piercey. "Market to parents, don’t market to children. Period."
With only about 35% of residents fully vaccinated, Tennessee is among the states with some of the lowest vaccination rates.
Vaccination rates across the country often fall along partisan lines and many parents cite concerns about the unknown long-term side effects of the vaccine or argue that children aren't as susceptible to serious complications from COVID-19.
In May, Tennessee began administering Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine to children ages 12 and older after the vaccine received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for younger residents.
Within days of the vaccine being approved for children ages 12 and up, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the health department’s medical director for the Vaccine-Preventable Diseases and Immunization program, sent a letter to the state’s more than 900 vaccine providers clarifying when providers can administer to a minor without their parent or guardian being present.
According to what is called “the mature minor doctrine,” health care providers can treat patients as young a 14 without parental consent.
But Piercey clarified Wednesday that private health care providers and physicians are also allowed to deny treatment without parental permission.
County health departments follow state law, Piercey said, but the state only knows of eight minors who received a COVID-19 without a parent present. Three of those minors are Piercey's own children.
“I think there is a sense we’re hiding in dark alleys and whispering to kids, ‘Hey come get vaccinated,'” Piercey told lawmakers Wednesday. "We are not doing that."
Only eight people under the age of 18 have died due to COVID-19 in Tennessee and about 370 have been hospitalized, Piercey told the committee.
Pediatric hospitalizations consisted of primarily infants and teenagers, Piercey said, and makeup only 0.3% of the state's total hospitalizations.
But the department does encourage all eligible Tennesseans to be vaccinated while acknowledging that getting the shot is a personal choice, she said.
"We at the department strongly believe that the vaccine is a personal choice and we want to make it available for those who choose it," she said.
It is unlikely that K-12 schools will require students to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and Gov. Bill Lee has been vocally opposed to vaccine mandates, "vaccine passports" and other such requirements.
Some private or independent schools, like the renowned McCallie School in Chattanooga, and higher education institutions have already announced vaccine requirements for both students and staff.
If and how school districts can encourage students and staff to get the vaccine is unknown, but any child vaccinated at a school-sponsored or school-sanctioned event would need parent permission.
Metro Nashville Public Schools, the state's second-largest school district, emailed Nashville families in May, encouraging parents and students to get their shot.
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