NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The firing of Tennessee's former vaccination director caught the state's top health leaders off guard and sent them scrambling for answers as the health commissioner fumed over the praise coworkers heaped on the ousted employee, documents show.
Earlier this year, Tennessee's Department of Health sparked national attention after Dr. Michelle “Shelley” Fiscus was fired under pressure from Republican legislators incensed over the department's efforts to get children vaccinated against COVID-19. Fiscus accused Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey of terminating her “to appease a handful of outraged and uninformed legislators.”
The Associated Press requested a week's worth of emails among the health department's top leadership regarding Fiscus' firing in mid-July. The records, released for review after several months, paint a more complete picture of an agency in turmoil over the firing of an official who was highly regarded by those fighting to contain the pandemic.
The agency last month said it would cost the AP roughly $1,400 to review several hundred records. Ultimately, the department produced some 150 records to view in person at no cost, explaining the discrepancy by saying the initial figure had estimated “potential" costs. The state's open records law requires that all public records be made available for inspection upon request.
Emails provided to the AP show some officials were shocked at Fiscus' firing.
“I am so saddened by this news and honestly cannot comprehend it,” wrote Dr. Jill Obremskey, department medical director. “Dr. Fiscus has put forth a herculean effort to assure COVID vaccine was available to anyone who wanted it. Because of her, many lives have been saved.”
In announcing Fiscus' firing, Dr. John Dunn, state epidemiologist, acknowledged that the news was “sudden, sad and disconcerting to our team members.”
“I wish her the very best in the future. Her commitment to public health has been very evident during the COVID-19 response effort over the last 18 months,” Dunn wrote on July 12.
Two days prior, in a separate email to CDC officials, Dunn highlighted that Fiscus had helped lead “herculean efforts” to push the COVID-19 shot among the state's unvaccinated.
Dr. Tim Jones, chief medical officer, later told Dunn his kind words about Fiscus had upset Piercey.
“By the way, the commissioner is really angry that you wrote anything nice about Shelley in your traditional ‘farewell message’ and that Obremskey reiterated it. It’s been fun around here,” Jones wrote to Dunn on July 14.
A department spokesperson declined to comment on Jones' description, saying it was a personnel issue.
The email traffic raises new questions about a letter dated July 9 — attributed to Jones — that recommended the firing of Fiscus.
The letter said Fiscus should be removed due to complaints about her leadership approach and her handling of a letter explaining vaccination rights of minors for COVID-19 shots without notifying their parents, which helped prompt the backlash from lawmakers.
Tennessee officials, however, didn’t release her performance reviews, which are exempted under state public records law. Fiscus’ husband Brad circulated them in rebuttal, showing she received glowing appraisals over several years. One positive review came as recently as June, when Dunn praised Fiscus for “strong leadership” while her program was under “very intense scrutiny.”
A month prior, Republican lawmakers put Fiscus and the department in the hot seat over its childhood vaccine messaging efforts, with one lawmaker floating the possibility of shuttering the health agency as retribution.
News of Fiscus’ firing quickly resulted in a barrage of phone calls from Tennesseans and others alarmed by her dismissal and the department’s decision to pause COVID-19 vaccine outreach efforts for eligible minors. Emails show Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s communication team provided a script for the health agency to recite.
“(The department) began using the script at about 12:45 and it is not going well...the callers are really upset,” wrote agency staffer Lisa Hanner.
Piercey was on vacation in Greece when Fiscus was fired. Few of the emails provided to AP include her correspondence, but a handful indicate she was monitoring media coverage.
At least one doctor emailed Piercey to praise her for firing Fiscus, which the commissioner forwarded to Brandon Gibson, Lee's chief operating officer. There's no indication in the records that she forwarded any emails from the medical community backing Fiscus.
“I am thankful to my colleagues at the Tennessee Department of Health for coming to my defense and admonishing the department leadership’s decision to terminate me from my position," Fiscus told the AP.
“Tennessee’s elected and appointed officials continue to put politics ahead of what is in the best interest of the health and wellbeing of the people of Tennessee and it is the people who will continue to suffer the consequences of these misguided priorities. It’s shameful,” she added.
The department did not respond to the records request until Sept. 9, informing the AP it would cost about $1,400 for attorneys to vet and potentially redact about 875 records. When the AP asked to view the records in person as allowed under Tennessee’s open records law, the department updated that the total amount of documents would be 374.
Ultimately, the agency only identified 158 documents within the AP’s records request. Asked about the reduced number, a department spokesperson said the original estimate included “potential” records, not a firm amount.