Dolly: Tennessee vaccination rates stall as delta spreads

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — Best friends Emma Short and Rachel Nelson, both 18, disagree about the Covid vaccines.

“I’m vaccinated. She’s not,” Short said, standing next to Nelson as they enjoyed a day at the Dollywood theme park.

Both women, who are recent high school graduates, are heading to college in their hometown at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville this fall, where students won’t be required to get vaccinated.

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“I like to lightly suggest, as her best friend, that I think it would be good to get it,” said Short, who researched the vaccines before deciding they were safe. “But it’s not like I’m going to end the friendship.”

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Nelson is apprehensive. The shots haven’t been out for too long, and stories of side effects spooked her. Her mom is vaccinated; her dad isn’t. Her aunt sends her anti-vaccination content. Her best friend wants her to get it.

She is exactly the type of person whom Tennessee’s top vaccination official, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, was hoping to persuade to get vaccinated before she was fired this month after her department doubled-down on its outreach to eligible children and teenagers.

Fiscus was forced out after she sent a memo to physicians about the state’s Mature Minor Doctrine, which allows minors 14 to 18 years old to get vaccinated without parental consent under certain conditions. It was the last straw for state Republican legislators already upset over the state Health Department’s Covid-19 outreach to youths.

As a result, the state decided to halt not just youth outreach about the Covid-19 vaccine, but outreach about all vaccinations. That produced such a backlash that on Friday, the state reversed course after it said was a “pause” to review marketing materials.

“The reason we paused is because we wanted to leave no room for interpretation about where we are shooting: We are shooting to get the message to parents,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said.

Fiscus said in a statement in response to her firing that she was “afraid for my state,” where just 39 percent of adults have been fully vaccinated.

IMAGE: Dr. Michelle Fiscus
Dr. Michelle Fiscus of Franklin, Tenn.William DeShazer / The New York Times / Redux
Her firing came at a pivotal point in the vaccine rollout for the state and for the South more broadly, as vaccination rates slow, the delta variant spreads among the unvaccinated and many of those yet to be vaccinated remain steadfast in objections largely driven by nerves and indifference.

Ashley Rowland, 38, traveled to Dollywood from North Carolina with her husband, Brian, 43, and their two sons to enjoy the theme park and pay homage to Dolly Parton.

“I’m a huge fan,” Rowland, a nurse at a county jail, said of Parton, the country music legend. But even Parton — who donated $1 million to help fund the Moderna vaccine and switched up the lyrics of her iconic song “Jolene” to “vaccine” to encourage vaccinations — can’t change Rowland’s mind: She won’t get vaccinated, at least not until one of the three available shots is formally approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

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Image: Ashley and Brian Rowland with their sons, Benjamin, 13, and Matthew, 15
Brian and Ashley Rowland with their sons, Benjamin, 13, left, and Matthew, 15. The Rowlands have chosen to not have their family vaccinated but said that if people want to get vaccinated, they should.Jessica Tezak / for NBC News
Rowland has been working with Covid patients for the past year and a half and hasn’t contracted the virus. Brian raises chickens for a living and sees no use in getting vaccinated. “I don’t work with people — ever,” he said. They both believe the media have overblown the threat of the coronavirus.

The Rowlands aren’t swayed by politics and don’t care what Republicans or Democrats have to say about the shots. They know people who have been vaccinated, and they aren’t in the business of convincing family and friends one way or another.

“If people want to get it, they should get it,” said Ashley Rowland, who approaches the topic with some apathy.

If her sons, Matthew, 15, and Benjamin, 13, wanted to get vaccinated, she would let them. She said she didn’t think Fiscus should have been fired.

Steve Rockmaker, 77, of Knoxville, felt more strongly. He said the reaction to Fiscus’ memo was “horrendous.”

“I’m worried about the delta variant,” Rockmaker said, who said he “jumped” at the opportunity to get vaccinated, which has allowed him to pursue more activities, like visiting Dollywood.

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