The firing of the former Tennessee director of vaccinations caught top state health officials by surprise and made them look for answers, and the health commissioner was outraged by the accolades that the dismissed employee received from colleagues, according to the documents.
Earlier this year, the Tennessee Department of Health caught the nation’s attention after Dr. Michelle “Shelley” Fiscus was fired under pressure from Republican lawmakers outraged by the department’s efforts to vaccinate children against COVID-19. Fiscus accused Health Commissioner Lisa Pearcey of firing her “to appease a handful of outraged and ignorant lawmakers.”
The Associated Press requested a weekly e-mail to senior health officials regarding Fiscus’s dismissal in mid-July. The footage, released for review a few months later, paints a fuller picture of how the agency is in turmoil over the firing of an official who has been praised by those fighting to contain the pandemic.
The agency said last month that viewing several hundred recordings would cost AP roughly $ 1,400. The department ultimately produced about 150 free-of-charge entries in person, explaining the discrepancy by saying that the original figure was an estimate of “potential” costs. State open archives law requires all public records to be available for inspection upon request.
Emails provided by AP show that some officials were shocked by Fiscus’ sacking.
“I am so saddened by this news and honestly cannot understand it,” wrote Dr. Jill Obremski, medical director of the department. “Dr. Fiscus has made a titanic effort to make the COVID vaccine available to anyone who wants it. Thanks to her, many lives have been saved. “
In announcing Fiscus’ sacking, Dr. John Dunn, a government epidemiologist, admitted the news was “sudden, sad and discouraging for our team members.”
“I wish her all the best for the future. Her commitment to public health has been very evident during the COVID-19 response efforts over the past 18 months, ”Dunn wrote on July 12.
Dunn emphasized in a separate email two days earlier that Fiscus helped spearhead a “titanic effort” to spread the COVID-19 vaccine to the unvaccinated in the state.
Dr. Tim Jones, the chief physician, later told Dunn that his kind words about Fiscus upset Piercey.
“By the way, the Commissioner is very angry that you wrote something good about Shelley in your traditional farewell message and that Obremski repeated it. It was fun here, Jones wrote to Dunn on July 14.
An agency spokesman declined to comment on Jones’ description, saying it was a personnel issue.
E-traffic raises new questions over a July 9 letter attributed to Jones recommending Fiscus’s firing.
The letter said Fiscus should be removed due to complaints about her leadership approach and her handling of a letter explaining juvenile COVID-19 vaccination rights without notifying their parents, prompting backlash from lawmakers.
However, Tennessee officials did not publish her performance reviews, which are excluded under state public records law. Fiscus’ husband Brad circulated them as a rebuttal, revealing that she had received rave reviews for several years. One positive review came as recently as June, when Dunn praised Fiscus for “strong leadership” while her program was “under very close scrutiny.”
A month earlier, Republican lawmakers had brought Fiscus and the department to the fore for its efforts to spread awareness about childhood vaccines, with one lawmaker suggesting the possibility of shutting down the health agency in retaliation.
News of Fiscus’s dismissal quickly erupted into a flurry of phone calls from Tennessee and others alarmed by her dismissal and the department’s decision to suspend efforts to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine to eligible minors. The emails reveal that Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s communications team has provided the health agency with a script that he should read.
“(The department) started using the script at about 12:45 pm and it doesn’t work very well … the callers are very upset,” wrote agency employee Lisa Hanner.
Pearcy was on vacation in Greece when Fiscus was fired. Few of the emails sent by AP include her correspondence, but few indicate that she followed media coverage.
At least one doctor emailed Pearcey to praise her for firing Fiscus, and the commissioner sent a letter to Brandon Gibson, Lee’s chief operating officer. There is no indication in the records that she forwarded any emails from the medical community supporting Fiscus.
“I am grateful to my colleagues at the Tennessee Department of Health for standing up for me and alerting the department leadership to the decision to fire me from my position,” Fiscus told AP.
“Elected and appointed Tennessee officials continue to place politics above that which is in the health and well-being of Tennessee’s residents, and it is the people who will continue to suffer the consequences of these misplaced priorities. It’s shameful, ”she said. added.
The department did not respond to a request for documentation until September 9, telling AP that reviewing and possibly editing about 875 records would cost about $ 1,400 for attorneys. When asked to personally review the records, as permitted by the Tennessee Open Records Act, the AP said the total would be 374.
Ultimately, the agency only identified 158 documents in the AP request. When asked about the reduction in quantity, a department spokesman said the initial estimate included “potential” entries, not a lump sum.