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Experts say Tennessee’s decision to stop outreach programs could cause a rise in COVID-19 cases and other diseases among children. Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty Images
  • Tennessee officials have stopped outreach programs to children for all vaccines.
  • Experts say the decision could cause an increase in COVID-19 cases among children, especially with the surging delta variant.
  • They add that the decision could also produce an uptick in other illnesses that require vaccination, such as whooping cough and measles.

Officials at the Tennessee Department of Health have announced they will be ceasing all vaccine outreach programs to children.

Their directive isn’t just for COVID-19. It’s for vaccines of any kind.

The announcement came at the same time the state fired its top vaccine official, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, over what she says was an attempt to increase vaccination rates statewide and because of her quoting a 1987 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling stating that minors ages 14 to 18 could, in most cases, receive treatment without parental consent.

Fiscus and other critics have stated that the new position of the Department of Health is an explicitly partisan move driven by the state’s Republican legislators.

“I was told that I should have been more ‘politically aware’ and that I ‘poked the bear’ when I sent a memo to medical providers clarifying a 34-year-old Tennessee Supreme Court ruling,” Fiscus told NBC News.

“I am not a political operative. I am a physician who was, until today, charged with protecting the people of Tennessee, including its children, against preventable diseases like COVID-19,” she said.

These actions have raised alarm bells with physicians groups and patient advocates.

“We’re very concerned that now is not the time to take the foot off the gas in distributing information regarding the COVID-19 vaccine,” said Devin Jopp, EdD, MS, the CEO of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC).

APIC officials recently released a statement in response to Tennessee’s change in vaccine response, denouncing efforts to limit vaccine outreach.

“Sadly, their actions mean fewer people who are eligible to receive the vaccine will get it, which will lead to more cases, hospitalizations, and deaths,” Jopp told Healthline. “This would be a tragic outcome when we have vaccines that are 95 percent effective in preventing serious illness.”

Changes in policy to limit vaccine education and events to just adults have potentially profound public health implications, experts say.

Children under 18 make up 20 percent of the population. It might be impossible to reach “herd immunity” without them.

“As a physician and parent to three girls, it’s difficult to comprehend why we would not want to share with the public the benefits of getting a vaccine that protects against deadly viruses and bacteria,” said Dr. José Mayorga, the executive director at the University of California at Irvine’s Family Health Centers.

“We need to stop thinking this virus is not as impactful to children. There are children’s hospitals throughout the country which continue to document an uptake in hospitalization and ICU admissions,” Mayorga told Healthline.

“In addition, ‘long COVID’ cases have been documented in children. As a parent myself, I cannot fathom the idea of placing my children at risk like this and hope that parents begin to realize that in order to end this pandemic, we need as many eligible adults and children to get vaccinated,” he said.

The implications of this type of policymaking go beyond COVID-19.

“This state’s approach to halting vaccination outreach, not just for COVID-19 vaccines, could also hinder the capacity to vaccinate adults and protect children from other infectious diseases,” Dr. Ilan Shapiro, the medical director of health education and wellness at AltaMed Health Services and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told Healthline.

“We could start seeing outbreaks of whooping cough, measles, polio, and other diseases that have been kept at bay in the states because of the protection provided through vaccination,” he said.

Dr. Anita Ravi, MPH, MSHP, a family physician in New York City, agreed.

“We know data shows that the pandemic caused… a dip in routine, non-COVID childhood immunizations. This directive has the potential to worsen the existing gap,” Ravi told Healthline.

“Political pressure wielded based on misinformation rather than science sets a dangerous precedent for the public’s trust in our public health systems,” she added. “Whether it is from lawmakers or public health departments, when trust between these essential institutions is lost, it jeopardizes the health of all of us.”