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On vaccines, Tennessee Republicans move in a tragic direction

Tennessee Republicans forced the ouster of the state's top vaccination official, and then they just kept going.

Tennessee is one of the states where COVID-19 cases have climbed in recent weeks, but the vaccination rate has not. A New York Times tally noted that roughly 43% of the state's population has received at least one vaccine dose, which is far behind the national rate of 56%. As of Monday, only 38% of Tennesseans have been fully vaccinated.

Given the circumstances, this seems like an awful time to fire Tennessee's top vaccination official. And yet, here we are.

Tennessee officials have fired the state's top vaccination official, who had been facing scrutiny from Republican state lawmakers over her department's outreach efforts to vaccinate teenagers against Covid-19. Dr. Michelle Fiscus, a pediatrician, was fired Monday as the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health.

The trouble apparently started in May, when Fiscus prepared a guidance for vaccinating teenagers, which suggested that some older minors -- between the ages of 14 and 17 -- could be eligible for vaccinations without their parents' consent.

Fiscus said the health department's attorney had endorsed the guidance, which had also reportedly been "blessed by the governor's office."

A Republican freak-out nevertheless ensued, and the pediatrician was ousted from her post earlier this week. In a statement, Fiscus said she was told she should've been more "politically aware" while trying to protect public health.

This, however, was just the start of the state's troubles. Nashville's Tennessean newspaper reported overnight that the state health department is now halting "all adolescent vaccine outreach -- not just for coronavirus, but all diseases -- amid pressure from Republican state lawmakers."

The article added that the Tennessee Department of Health will also "stop all COVID-19 vaccine events on school property," and stop sending postcards reminding teens about getting their second doses. What's more, "If the health department must issue any information about vaccines, staff are instructed to strip the agency logo off the documents."

The New York Times' report added that some GOP lawmakers have publicly raised the prospect of "dissolving" the state health department altogether.

To be sure, we've seen some other examples of public-health officials facing intense political pressure for having the audacity to do their jobs -- by one tally, "at least 181 state and local public health leaders in 38 states had resigned, retired or been fired since April 1, 2020" -- but Tennessee offers an especially astonishing example of the phenomenon.

Chris Hayes told Rachel last night on the air how difficult it is to see so many public health officials getting "whipsawed by this nihilistic political movement," which I think is exactly the right way to see these events.

In my book, there's a common theme: the more Republicans reject data, evidence, and expertise, the deeper they slip into post-policy nihilism. The consequences of such an approach in Tennessee are likely to be brutal.