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Experts Fear Partisan Disputes Over Vaccination In Tennessee Will Drive Skeptics Away

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There's been an intense back and forth in Tennessee that lasts several weeks between Republican lawmakers and public health officials over vaccinating teenagers. The state's vaccine director, a pediatrician, was fired. What has been revealed? Some of the political motivations behind the state's pandemic response. And vaccine advocates fear the partisan wrangling will drive skeptics further away. Here is Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Long, white cafeteria tables with those built-in seats are pushed against the walls because this middle school lunchroom in Nashville is only serving shots today.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You guys can have a seat right over there.

FARMER: Public health nurses are getting students up to date on their standard vaccines and offering COVID shots. But events like this are just now resuming in much of Tennessee. School-sponsored outreach had been put on hold for weeks over concerns from Republican legislators. They felt like teens were being coerced to get the vaccine, though there's no confirmed evidence. But father Brandon Williams was glad to see lawmakers stepped in and toned down the vaccine push to teens, like his two middle-schoolers.

BRANDON WILLIAMS: I'm not one of those people that particularly like the government forcing us to do things. This is the land of the free.

FARMER: It wasn't just vaccination events on school grounds that Republicans were concerned about. Their biggest gripe was about an internal memo written by the state's vaccine director on the legal basis for vaccinating minors without parental consent. State Representative Scott Cepicky said in a hearing last month he was outraged.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

SCOTT CEPICKY: And to target our children - our children - and to circumvent the authority of a parent.

FARMER: He proposed to dissolve the state's health department. But Republicans dropped those threats after the state's vaccine director was fired, attracting national attention. Tennessee's health chief, Dr. Lisa Piercey, still defends the memo and has said it's not the reason for the termination. On paper, it was for poor management, despite mostly glowing performance reviews. While not backing down, Piercey does say she wants the health department's policies to align with lawmakers, who represent the will of the people. If they're feeling there's too much pressure to get the vaccine, those they represent may also.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LISA PIERCEY: It is our job to educate and encourage and make it accessible and then stop.

FARMER: The thing is the department isn't stopping much of what was apparently causing so much concern. School-based vaccination events are resuming. Piercey says they'll even vaccinate minors without parental consent, though it will still be rare. The only concrete change is taking down social media posts showing kids getting vaccinated, which lawmakers demanded. Even so, some pediatricians say the damage has been done, with lawmakers amplifying vaccine misinformation during their debates. Dr. Amy Evans runs a practice in the rural community of Sewanee.

AMY EVANS: This just makes our job that much harder. I think we'll see more vaccine hesitancy.

FARMER: And the timing - not good. School in Tennessee starts back in person and maskless in a few weeks. The delta variant wave is threatening much of the under-vaccinated South, with infections rebounding 200% in Tennessee this month, almost entirely among the unvaccinated.

KELLEY FOXWORTH: This is like the black plague. People need to realize that.

FARMER: Kelley Foxworth says it was an easy decision to vaccinate her sixth-grader this week. She's disappointed in state leaders who she says should be focused on reaching the majority of Tennessee residents who remain unvaccinated.

FOXWORTH: Yes, it's a personal choice. But I have to think about my neighbor. So it's not just about me. It's about everybody around me.

FARMER: Like Foxworth's aunt in Detroit, who died on a ventilator. She says she hopes it doesn't take a COVID death in the family for others to see vaccination the same way. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.