Tennessee Department of Health resumes vaccination outreach to minors

A July 12 policy prohibiting sending vaccine reminders to minors and holding school-wide vaccination events was overturned on July 23.


Hallie Williams

Vanderbilt University Medical Center North, as photographed on Oct. 16, 2020. (Hustler Multimedia/Hallie Williams)

Sally Johnson and Katherine Oung

On July 12, the Tennessee Department of Health (DOH) stated it would no longer engage in outreach encouraging the vaccination of minors against COVID-19 and other diseases, such as HPV or influenza. However, as of July 23, the DOH revoked this decision, restarting all vaccination outreach to minors.

The DOH initially planned to stop sending vaccination information to minors, including reminders to receive the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The decision also canceled vaccine-related events in schools where minors are present. A number of Tennessee residents and public officials expressed discontent with these changes on social media. 

I keep coming back to this story and the utterly unforgivable, amoral, murderous intent of not getting kids vaccinated,” Rick Wilson, Republican political strategist, tweeted

The DOH oversees public health in 89 of Tennessee’s 95 counties. Per a July 13 article by The Tennessean, the July 12 policy banning vaccine outreach was encouraged by a number of Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers who met with the state’s health commissioner to discuss the policy before it was released.

On the day of the policy rollout, the Tennessee state government also fired Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the state’s former top vaccine official. State lawmakers criticized Fiscus after she sent a memo to medical providers stating that Tennessee policy allows minors above the age of 14 to be vaccinated without parental consent.    

Per a July 16 article by NPR, Fiscus said she was “doing her job to explain what is allowable” while state lawmakers stated that the memo caused “confusion of both law and policy for private providers, parents, and legislators.”

First-year Riya Patel currently resides in Newport, Tennessee, one of the cities under the DOH’s jurisdiction. In the spring and early summer, health officials in Patel’s county encouraged minors to be vaccinated for COVID-19, but outreach halted between July 12 and July 23. 

“We received a bunch of flyers, [and] our school held three or four events in which students could get vaccinated,” Patel said. “We were told to get the vaccine to do our part to help end the pandemic.” 

Per a July 13 article by The Tennessean, an internal DOH report stated that vaccine outreach to young people could be considered illegal solicitation. Furthermore, DOH spokesperson Sarah Tanksley told The Tennessean that school vaccine events would cease under the original policy because they were “perceived by some to give the wrong impression regarding parental consent.”

Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said in a July 23 news conference that the DOH had decided to resume almost all halted outreach, except for social media posts promoting vaccinations that were specifically aimed at children.

“I’m glad that they reversed their decision because the pandemic is still a pressing issue, not just in the state, but nationally,” Patel said. 

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a June 21 interview with NBC News that robust vaccine-related messaging to minors is especially relevant given the arrival of the more contagious Delta variant. Per Becerra, this outreach can combat misinformation and apathy among adolescents.

“Minors can have this mindset of, ‘I don’t need to get vaccinated because I’m young and healthy,’” Noah Lustbader, sophomore and vice president of the Vanderbilt Initiative for Public Health Equality (VIPHE) said. “They are the individuals who could pass it on to their family members or other people who are at high risk.”

During the Spring 2021 semester, the VIPHE interviewed Dr. William Schaffner, leading disease specialist and professor of preventive medicine in the Vanderbilt Department of Health Policy. Schaffner addressed concerns regarding vaccine components and possible side effects.

“We have an extraordinary vaccine safety assessment system in this country,” Schaffner said. 

Although Lustbader supports the restart of DOH outreach, he said that he worries about the lasting effects that inconsistent outreach policies could have on people’s outlook about vaccines.

“Changing up on what you’re saying causes confusion and ambiguity,” Lustbader said. “It makes it hard for people to keep up, especially when there’s a bunch of misconceptions already out there.”

Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) will continue to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to Tennesseans aged 12 or older. Per the VUMC website, minors must be accompanied by a legal guardian when receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. 

“With decreased vaccination rates in any area, there is less protection from communicable diseases for that community,” Dr. Laura Burkhart of the Vanderbilt Student Health Center said in an email to The Hustler. “We encourage all students to talk with their medical provider on what vaccines are recommended for them.”

The Student Health Center will continue to offer the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, while the VUMC will offer the Pfizer, Moderna and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. All students are still required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine before the Fall 2021 semester.