Republican lawmakers are threatening Tennessee health officials with defunding their department if they don’t curtail what they see as marketing the COVID vaccine to children. The saber-rattling arises from a state memo explaining how teenagers could legally be vaccinated without parental consent.
This letter, sent to vaccine providers in May, states that under legal precedent, children 14 and up are usually considered mature enough to make medical decisions for themselves, if necessary. But Republican officials already skeptical of the COVID vaccine saw it as the state trying to go behind the back of parents.
Dr. Lisa Piercey, the state’s health commissioner, was grilled this week at the state capitol, and Republican legislators had more points to make than questions to ask. Rep. Iris Rudder, R-Winchester, held up a social media ad featuring a teenager, smiling with a bandage on her arm.
“It’s not your business to target children. It’s your business to inform the parent that their child is eligible for the vaccination,” she told Piercey. “So I would encourage you before our next meeting to get things like this off your website.”
Moreover, lawmakers have been collecting anecdotes from anti-vaccine constituents who say their kids are getting pressured at school. Sen. Kerry Roberts of Springfield believes it’s inappropriate, if not illegal.
“A football coach or a band director or a drama teacher or whoever it is, ought not be to be telling kids, ‘Hey, just come and get done so you don’t have to sit out,’ ” he said at Wednesday’s hearing. “We’re getting to the point we’re getting proactive, we’re meddling.”
Not ‘whispering to kids’
The Republicans who are raising objections note that ample vaccine is now available, and still less than half of Tennesseans have been vaccinated. They conclude that not being vaccinated is now a choice for most of them.
Piercey says her department has not encouraged teachers to pressure students into vaccination.
Her department could only find eight instances in which minors have been vaccinated without a parent. Piercey says five of them were already at a local health department for other services and were offered the shot as a convenience. “The other three were my own children, who I sent unaccompanied to get their second dose because they’re 16 and their mom works,” she said.”
Piercey says she thinks kids should get the shot since studies have shown them to be safe in children. But she adds that parents should be in the loop in almost every case. The rule allowing minors to be vaccinated without consent, she says, is mostly about reaching young people who have undocumented parents who don’t want to interact with the government or parents who are absent, perhaps struggling with a drug addiction.
“If you will allow me to speak somewhat frankly,” she told the Government Operations Committee, “I think there’s a sense that we are hiding in dark alleys and whispering to kids, ‘Hey, come get vaccinated.’ We’re not. We’re not doing that. We’re not encouraging that.”
Still, Republican lawmakers have called Piercey back for another hearing in July, in which they plan to discuss dissolving the department if it doesn’t tone down the pitch for kids to get vaccinated.