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Doctors Condemn Tennessee Lawmakers for Discouraging Vaccines and Silencing Public Health Leaders

Doctors for America and Physicians for Human Rights strongly condemn the reckless actions of Tennessee lawmakers who seek to discourage childhood and young adult vaccinations and silence public health leaders. 

Doctors for America is a national organization of over 20,000 doctors and doctors-in-training who care for patients of all ages. Physicians for Human Rights marshals the skills of its vast national and international network of physicians and other health workers to expose and prevent human rights abuses. Collectively, our tens of thousands of health professionals have cared for patients with COVID-19 in their clinics and their intensive care units around the world and from coast to coast, including in Tennessee, since the beginning of this pandemic. They continue to do so, working tirelessly.

Now, we have a scientifically-proven, safe, and effective way to prevent this infection. Despite the fact that large numbers have chosen to be vaccinated, doctors in Tennessee and other states across the country are seeing COVID-19 hospitalizations double and new cases increasing four-fold in the past few weeks – a potential fourth wave of COVID infections and deaths – particularly in population areas with higher rates of unvaccinated people.

Shockingly, in the midst of these worrying trends, the Tennessee Department of Health has not only rolled back efforts supporting COVID vaccination of children and young adults, but has inexplicably banned actions to promote ANY vaccination efforts, responding to pressure from state lawmakers. On top of this, Tennessee chose to terminate the employment of its vaccinations coordinator, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, merely for doing her job: providing guidance to doctors on how best to protect Tennessee children and families.

Vaccines have been proven to be safe and effective in clinical trials and are used around the world.  Vaccine-preventable diseases kill indiscriminately – paying no attention to geography nor political affiliation.  And the vast majority of those deaths are preventable. We know that children can become ill and die from COVID-19, and we know they can transmit it to vulnerable family members – particularly when those children and family members are not vaccinated. 

Vaccines save lives. Protecting children and their families means ensuring that children have the opportunity to be vaccinated and that parents have the information they need to choose to do so – plain and simple.

“As frontline health workers, we demand that government agencies and lawmakers follow the science and support basic public health outreach initiatives around vaccination in children – for COVID-19 specifically, but also for all vaccine-preventable diseases,” says Dr. Farheen Qurashi, DFA Board Member and COVID Recovery Committee Co-Chair.

No doctor wants to have to tell a parent that their child has died, let alone from a preventable cause – and even less when that death was connected to misguided policies from politically-motivated anti-science lawmakers. Further, no public health professional should fear losing their job based on politics. Too often during this pandemic, science has found itself hijacked by politicians, health workers initially hailed as “heroes” find themselves persecuted for practicing good clinical medicine, and public health leaders around the country have resigned or been fired in large numbers – simply for doing their jobs. 

“These continued attacks on the public health workforce undermine our COVID-19 response and threaten the nation’s health,” said Max Hadler, COVID-19 Senior Policy Expert at Physicians for Human Rights. “Punishing public health officials for doing their jobs is an affront to the very people whose expertise can lead us out of the pandemic.”

What is happening in Tennessee is reprehensible. It is irresponsible. It is risking lives. And it simply cannot continue if our representatives truly value the health and safety of our communities.

Addendum: We are aware that Tennessee is now backtracking and has subsequently announced that it is partially reversing the decision to halt vaccine outreach efforts in the state. Though it is resuming most (but not all) health department-sponsored efforts aimed at vaccinating children and adolescents, the damage of the original decision, the poor communication around it, and its apparent motivation has largely been done. Further, Michelle Fiscus’s firing has not been rectified.

It should not take a media firestorm and widespread public backlash for lawmakers to stop spreading misinformation and to prioritize the health of the children in their state. Listening to sound public health guidance, respecting and protecting public health leaders who are serving the public, and supporting activities aimed at protecting the public – including minors – from vaccine-preventable illness should be the default approach.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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