Tennessee’s Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, M.D. came under intense fire from state legislators and members of the public alike, during a meeting of the Tennessee General Assembly’s Joint Government Operations Committee meeting held Wednesday, for activities interpreted as marketing COVID-19 shots directly to children under the cover of the “mature minor” doctrine.
Prior to the standard business of the committee reviewing emergency rules filed in April 2021, the meeting agenda called for a presentation by the Department of Health regarding a May 12, 2021, letter from Medical Director of the Tennessee Vaccine-Preventable Diseases and Immunization Program at the Tennessee Department Health Dr. Michelle Fiscus that addressed the Tennessee “mature minor” doctrine and co-administration of COVID-19 and routine vaccinations.
Fiscus said in her letter that, based on the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices vote that very same day to recommend the use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccines in children between 12 and 15 years of age, she “thought it would be helpful to share Tennessee’s ‘mature minor’ doctrine.”
The “mature minor” doctrine in Tennessee, Fiscus went on to share perhaps to the shock of many parents, “permits healthcare providers to treat certain minors without parental consent.”
This doctrine is based on a 1987 Tennessee Supreme Court case, Cardwell v. Bechtol, from which the “Rule of Sevens” emerged.
According to “mature minor” doctrine’s “Rule of Sevens” posted on the Tennessee Department of Health (DoH) website:
• Under the age of 7 there is no capacity, and the physician must have parental consent to treat (unless a statutory exception applies).
• Between the ages of 7 and 14, there is a rebuttable presumption that there is no capacity, and a physician generally should get parental consent before treating (unless a statutory exception applies).
• Between the ages of 14 and 18, there is a rebuttable presumption of capacity, and the physician may treat without parental consent unless the physician believes that the minor is not sufficiently mature to make his or her own health care decisions.
Fiscus’s letter, after quoting the “Rule of Sevens,” went on to state that “[C]ertain statutes also explicity permit the treatment of minors for specific conditions without parental consent” and then listed some of those situations.
Fiscus also said that “Tennessee county health departments … provide … vaccinations to patients as young as 14 without parental consent if the individual provider determines that the patient meets the definition of a ‘mature minor’ in accordance with Tennessee law.”
After saying that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is the only one authorized for persons between 12 and 17 years of age, Fiscus then portrayed a level of encouragement, “There is no federal, legal requirement for parent or caregiver consent for COVID-19, or any other, vaccine.”
During the meeting and as is customary, Piercey sat at the witness table directly in front of the committee members with Frank Mullins, DoH Chief General Counsel beside her.
Piercey presented several PowerPoint slides on the current status of COVID-19 in the state, which included the good news that there has been a dramatic declines in COVID-19 rates and that the virus is “almost non-existent in Tennessee right now.”
Her presentation also took a deeper dive into the COVID-19 trends amongst children 0 to 18 years of age in terms of the cases, hospitalizations and mortality rate, all of which are much lower than that of adults.
Piercey made an interesting point that the landscape regarding vaccines has changed. Initially, they were like gold, with people sometimes physically fighting over it. That has come “almost to a screeching halt,” said Piercey, moving to personal choice.
Upon conclusion of Piercey’s presentation, Deputy Speaker and Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) was the first to respond.
Bowling’s feedback was the concern for the misapplication and misunderstanding of the “mature minor,” which, as Bowling explained, “is judicial doctrine, not Tennessee Code, now law, not empowering, not enabling.” Rather, said Bowling, “The judicial doctrine is the protocol that will be used in cases when people are being brought before a judge and jury because they have violated parental rights.”
The first of several to reference a DoH ad featuring a young girl who is depicted as having received a shot by holding up a printed copy of it, Bowling observed that they have seen things coming out of the DoH encouraging 12 year olds to come get a shot.
“We are a common law state, and 12 year olds are under the responsibility and authority of their parents,” Bowling told Piercey.
Bowling also pointed out that, as Piercey said earlier, the people who have not taken the shot are the people who have made their personal medical decision not to take it and connected that to the DoH efforts toward getting children to come in.
Bowling told Piercey, “You have no authority to give them an emergency use authorized medical intervention,” and called it shocking.
Bowling said she would appreciate hearing back from Piercey with the action the DoH will take “to remove the fear, the concerns, and the anger that has gone across the state as a result of the [Fiscus] letter.”
During an exchange between Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) and Piercey, it was revealed that there is not a lot of difference in the COVID positivity rate in states with very high vaccination rates as compared to Tennessee, which is in the bottom 5 or 6.
In response to Bell’s question regarding the case law for the “mature minor” doctrine, Mullins gave a brief description of the Cardwell v. Bechtol case. In his conclusion, Mullins implied heightened importance to the opinion in the case, saying it has been cited over 500 times and “it’s still good law in Tennessee.”
Sen. Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) confirmed with Piercey that not only does Tennessee have enough vaccinations, but “more than we need” and stopped ordering the maximum allocation “probably three weeks ago.”
After Piercey told Pody that Tennessee’s vaccination rate is just shy of 40 percent, Pody restated back to Piercey that “almost 60 percent of the people have chosen not to get the vaccine.”
Pody pointed out to Piercey that if the vast majority have made that choice as adults and with the idea of a “mature minor,” a 14-year old ‘wouldn’t even know how to research the benefits and risk of a vaccination that is only under emergency authorization in making a decision that’s right for them for them entire life.”
Piercey’s response was to defend the “mature minor” doctrine, by telling Pody that she understands that the provision has been in place since 1987.
Pody emphasized that his point was about “this vaccination, this one,” that hasn’t been fully examined as to the long-term effects and that the majority of Tennesseans have rejected, yet the DoH says 14-year olds should be able to make their own choice having the vaccination.
After Piercey confirmed Pody’s statement, with a “That’s correct, sir,” Pody strongly expressed his sentiment.
“I don’t know how the terms that I could use to express my extreme disappointment that in the state of Tennessee, where the majority of adults that know, that think that a 14-year-old child could say yes.”
Rep. Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka) started off by expressing appreciation and giving kudos to Piercey and Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn for responding and putting out a fire very quickly with regard to a concern he brought about LEAs last month.
Cepicky has a well-earned reputation for taking on tough issues directly and Wednesday’s meeting was no different when he told Piercey that he is one who is very skeptical of the Department of Health and leadership.
He plainly stated, “The Department of Health is targeting our youth” when it comes to vaccinations as he held up the same printed copy as Bowling.
“When you have advertisement likes this with a young girl with a patch on her arm all smiling, we know how impressionable our young people are and wanting to fit in in life.”
“Personally, I think it’s reprehensible that we would do that to our youth in Tennessee.”
As with much of the discussion, Cepicky was fired up as he addressed several points that had to deal with both the safety and efficacy of the shots as well as targeting children to get them under the auspices of the “mature minor” doctrine.
Invoking Ronald Reagan’s famous saying relative to the most fearful words in the world being “I’m here from the government and I’m here to help,” Cepicky said, “We have let that happen here in Tennessee to us.”
“There is absolutely no reason that we should allow that to happen and allow our Department of Health to lead the charge with the ‘mature minor’ doctrine,” said Cepicky.
Cepicky wrapped up his somewhat lengthy points by making a motion to have DoH back at the next month’s meeting to continue the discussion as well as the insufficiency of VAERS, targeting youth, pushing the vaccine when Tennesseans have already said no and, lastly, consideration to the dissolution and reconstitution of the Department of Health.
Sen. Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield), Senate Chairman of the joint committee, pointed out that, indeed, the DoH is legislatively created and not constitutionally mandated, but that there were a range of options available to them.
After several minutes of discussion on the motion, Cepicky amended the contentious portion to the more generic discussion on how they will move forward with the DoH.
The motion passed, with votes along party lines.
Roberts, back on the general discussion of “putting the guilt trip on students if they don’t get vaccinated,” and having vaccination partners on-site over the summer during activities such as sports or band practice.
Roberts expressed concern, “because it looks like that is a mission here, an agenda here, to have children vaccinated with or without parental consent,” acknowledging that the issue has become political, as evidenced by the line of questioning by committee members, and Piercey telling them that she is pro-choice.
To that end, Roberts said he wanted to hear “in unequivocal language” that during the summer when school is not in session that a football coach, band director or drama teacher will not be telling kids to get the shot so they won’t have to sit it out or miss practice.
“Chairman, I want to be exceedingly clear. Under no circumstance is the department encouraging children to seek out vaccination without parental consent,” Piercey responded.
Piercey then seemed to contradict herself by saying, “It is an allowance, and we do believe that vaccination is the right thing to do for children, and so we don’t want to prohibit that if that’s something that they want to do in most circumstances.”
Roberts, without saying so directly, disagreed emphatically with Piercey.
“It looks like the Department of Health is marketing to children and it looks like you’re advocating.”
“Market to parents. Don’t market to 12-year-olds. Period.”
“I don’t think you have a mandate to do that at all, and I think that we’re getting to the point where we’re being proactive with this. We’re meddling, and I just don’t think that there’s any sense that the majority of people on this committee support that at all.”
Roberts’ very specific request to Piercey is that the DoH stop marketing to children and, for better or worse, respecting the role of the parent to the child.
House Chairman of the joint committee, Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge), repeatedly made efforts to keep the meeting moving along, but two more committee members wanted to make points.
Bowling reminded that she passed legislation during the session so that no state entity can mandate the vaccine – not a football coach, band leader or head of a school system.
Rep. Iris Rudder (R-Winchester) took a moment to “add a little bit more fuel to that fire” the Piercey was under.
Rudder said she, of course, disagreed with Piercey that they are not marketing to children, citing a tweet from the DoH that says if you’re a Tennessean age 12+, you’re eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccination featuring a little boy that looks 10.
— TN Dept. of Health (@TNDeptofHealth) June 2, 2021
Rudder said they should just admit that they are targeting to children which is not their business to do, and encouraged Piercey to get these materials off the DoH website before the next meeting.
If you're an adult Tennessean, you are eligible to receive a vaccine. Talk to your doctor about which one is right for you, and get scheduled for your first appointment here: https://t.co/VckX17hDUr pic.twitter.com/ra8McFf2y5
— TN Dept. of Health (@TNDeptofHealth) May 3, 2021
Citizens came from across the state to offer their comments on the topic, and in order to try to get back to the schedule, Ragan allotted them two minutes each.
Sandy Levorn, an R.N. from Gibson County spoke to the VAERS system, co-managed by the CDC and FDA, that reported between January and June 4, a total of 5,588 deaths on the passive surveillance system that is entirely reliant on voluntary reporting. Harvard and other studies have shown that fewer than 1 percent of vaccine adverse events are reported on the VAERS system. Using the Harvard information, it could be deduced that closer to 500,000 deaths have occurred.
Phil Roberts, M.D., a very animated practitioner for 31 years from Williamson County, repeated several times that this isn’t about political parties. In one week, over 500 people died from what is said to be a vaccine, but being mRNA is a gene-modifying therapy. As such, Roberts said that going in and rearranging the human genome is not going to have a good result.
He also expressed concern that having gone straight to kids and humans, there has been no animal experiments, something that the 1947 Nuremburg Trials said could not be done.
Roberts called it a “huge deal” that CDC is holding an emergency meeting later in the week about the occurrence of myocarditis in kids and asked the committee to “just pump the brakes.”
Rebecca Neves from Shelby County came to discuss the lack of informed consent in COVID-19 experimental vaccines and contrasted it to everything from hair dryer to mattresses that have clearly displayed risks and benefits of the product.
She was concerned about the coercion and financial distress associated with the vaccines from exam exemptions for students at the McCallie School for Boys in Chattanooga who would receive exam exemptions for getting 500 boys to get vaccinated by the end of a particular week, to a $1,500 premium on tuition at Rhodes College for unvaccinated students.
Neves asked for lawmakers to consider options to retract the “mature minor” doctrine and assistance in prohibition on coercion tactics in advertising by COVID vaccine partners geared toward child.
Amy Miller, a mother who felt compelled to mention that she is a former advertising agency owner before stating that the DoH is “absolutely marketing to children, and it needs to stop.”
Hearing about the “mature minor” letter, Miller said caused her to be shaking and that it absolutely gave permission to vaccinate without parental consent. Since every mother she has spoken to about it has the same interpretation, Miller pulled from her marketing agency experience in stating, “You have what’s called a brand gap, Department of Health.”
Jackson, Tennessee attorney Rolf Hazlehurst, does work on behalf of Children’s Health Defense, but was there on behalf of his child who was vaccine injured. Hazlehurst v. HHS was the second test case in the Omnibus Autism Proceeding under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.
He said the letter that is being referred to is “a dangerous oversimplification of the mature minor doctrine” in portraying that the age at which minors may consent to vaccinations in Tennessee without the parents’ knowledge or consent is well established.
“It is not,” Hazlehurst declared.
He said that the letter has tremendous legal consequences, as he offered a brief explanation, and pointed toward DoH chief counsel Mullins sitting at the other table.
Hazlehurst said he pointed to Mullins, because the letter was written by an attorney due to the effect it has of setting a statewide locality rule that children 14 and up may be vaccinated without the parents’ consent.
He then called it “legal activism,” that is “not the job of the bureaucrats” – pointing at Mullins – “to write the law at which children can be vaccinated.” Turning toward the committee, he concluded, “It’s your job.”
Ragan once again recognized Pody, expressing hope it would be brief, with the 24 rules that were yet to be taken up.
Pody said he would be brief, “But, I can’t think of anything that’s more pressing right now,” before asking the doctor about the data he had that supported his claims.
Dr. Roberts said that 99.94 percent of the kids in Tennessee did fine with no vaccine and declared, “You will never beat that with a vaccine.”
Nearly an hour and a half after it’s start, the presentation ended.
Kathy Harms of Williamson County, who helped organize the citizen attendees at the meeting, gave up her turn to speak during the meeting, but spoke with The Tennessee Star the day after.
Harms said that the Joint Government Operations meeting was “an outstanding example of our elected leaders standing in the gap between citizens and unelected bureaucrats.”
“Parents, including an R.N. and an M.D. and an attorney, drove in from around the state to register their anger that the Tennessee Department of Health is targeting the children, intruding into parental rights and responsibilities and refusing to disclose the mounting evidence of side effects, both short and long term from the COVID ‘vaccine.’”
“They are requesting that the legislature step in and halt not only this activism, but the vaccine roll out itself, based upon past CDC protocols in vaccine-related injuries such as the Swine Flu and Rotavirus vaccines which were pulled from the market for far less reported adverse effects.”
“The legislators were quick to support the protection of parents and all Tennesseans by demanding healthcare officials adjust or face consequences.”
The next meeting of the Joint Government Operations Committee is scheduled for Wednesday, July 21, 2020, at 1 p.m. in House Hearing Room I of the Cordell Hull Building.
The video of the Joint Government Operations Committee meeting held Wednesday, June 16, can be viewed here.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Star News Network, where she covers stories for The Tennessee Star and The Georgia Star News.