The Tennessee Department of Health abruptly postponed a virtual vaccine summit intended to provide training to medical professionals across the state as the agency continues to dial back its vaccination outreach despite widespread condemnation.
The Tennessee Immunization Summit was scheduled for August as recently as last Wednesday but was indefinitely postponed as of Monday morning, according to the health department website. No new date was set, and all information about the upcoming submit was removed from the site.
The summit was intended to be a repeat of a virtual conference launched last year that featured local and national experts on immunizations and vaccine advocacy. More than 350 medical professionals attended the event, and “the reviews were overwhelmingly positive,” according to a description of the event previously posted on the health department’s website that has since been removed.
Sarah Tanksley, a spokesperson for the health department, said the summit is expected to be rescheduled for the fall. The event was was “paused to ensure all materials, sessions and other supporting information are focused to parents who are the intended audience for any outreach efforts regarding medical decisions for children,” she said.
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The postponement comes as the Tennessee state government is under fire for ratcheting back efforts to vaccinate young people amid a worsening coronavirus outbreak. The changes came after Republican state lawmakers accused the health department leaders of attempting to pressure teenagers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, then threatened to dissolve the agency if it did not stop.
The agency this month instructed staff to stop all outreach about all adolescent vaccines, including “proactive outreach regarding routine vaccines,” and the agency halted all COVID-19 vaccination events on school property, according to agency emails and an internal report obtained by The Tennessean. Employees were told that if the agency must issue public information about vaccines, agency staff are supposed to remove the agency logo from the documents.
These changes to Tennessee’s vaccine strategy spurred a firestorm of criticism from medical professionals, public health advocates, politicians and the White House. Former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, a former Senate majority leader who remains a prominent Tennessee Republican voice, responded to the controversy with a Twitter thread urging state leaders to encourage childhood vaccinations and combat vaccine hesitancy.
“… It is the responsibility of our state’s leaders to take sometimes uncomfortable, even unpopular, positions when the health and lives of our people are at stake,” Frist tweeted.
In response to the blowback, the health department issued public statements last week saying it was evaluating its “marketing efforts intended for parents,” but there had been “no disruption” in actual access to vaccines.
“The Tennessee Department of Health not only supports immunizations but continues to provide valuable information and access to parents who are seeking vaccinations to their children,” the agency said.
Brett Kelman is the health care reporter for The Tennessean. He can be reached at 615-259-8287 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @brettkelman.