July 26, 2021 6:00am

Knoxville Power Poll: Vaccine Outreach

An overwhelming majority of survey respondents disagree with the state Department of Health’s decision to stop vaccine outreach to adolescents.

Photo of Scott Barker
Knoxville, TN Correspondent
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Last week, the Tennessee Department of Health fired its top vaccination official and halted outreach about all vaccinations to teenagers.

Coming at a time when COVID-19 cases in Tennessee were rising faster than in any other state and vaccination rates among the nation’s lowest, the move attracted national media attention, most of it negative.

Power Poll members overwhelmingly agreed with the sentiment in a survey conducted this week, with 81.8 percent saying they disagree with the Department of Health’s decision to stop outreach efforts.

The Department of Health announced its decision after firing Dr. Michelle Fiscus, its immunization director. Fiscus’ apparent offense was informing medical providers they could vaccinate most teenagers without parental consent under Tennessee’s Mature Minor Doctrine, which stems from a 1987 state Supreme Court ruling.

Republican lawmakers were outraged, with some considering disbanding the Department of Health over the issue.

In a lengthy statement issued the day of her termination, Fiscus said lawmakers were putting their political self-interest before the health of their constituents.

“They believe what they choose to believe rather than what is factual and evidence-based,” she said. “And it is the people of Tennessee who will suffer the consequences of the actions of the very people they put into power.”

After a meeting of the Legislature’s Joint Government Operations Committee on Wednesday, state Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, and state Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, put out a joint statement insisting that they are not “anti-vaxxers.”

“We have not discouraged Tennesseans from being vaccinated, nor have we discouraged Tennesseans from having their children vaccinated,” they said.

Six out of 10 respondents said they are very concerned the state’s policy would lead to a surge in COVID-19 cases, while another 21 percent are somewhat concerned.

Case counts are already rising across Tennessee and in Knox County. Statewide, the average number of cases reported each day over a seven-day period has leaped from 176 on June 24 to 817 as of Tuesday. In Knox County, the seven-day average has risen from five per day to 30 during the same time frame.

The state Department of Health’s policy extends to the 89 county health departments under its management. The Knox County Health Department is one of six in the state that is run independently.

Three out of four Power Poll respondents said the county should not alter its outreach efforts to conform to the state’s policy. In a statement sent to Compass last week, the Knox County Health Department said it would not change its outreach strategies.

Power Poll respondents are much more likely to be vaccinated than Knox County’s population as a whole. Of the 121 respondents who gave their vaccination status, only three said they weren’t vaccinated against COVID-19. Less than half of Knox Countians are fully vaccinated.

Cities across Tennessee conduct local Power Poll surveys. The Chattanooga Times Free Press asked some of the same questions Compass did this week, with similar results. In Hamilton County, 78 percent of respondents disagreed with the state Department of Health’s actions and an identical percentage is concerned about a new surge in COVID-19 cases as a result.

In Nashville, nine of 10 respondents disagreed with the state’s decision and 92 percent said the Metro Health Department should continue its outreach policies without regard to the state’s policy.

The Power Poll is not a scientific poll but a survey of views and attitudes among community leaders from government, business and nonprofit arenas. This month’s Power Poll surveyed 330 people, with 122 (36.97 percent) responding. Here are the questions and responses:

Do you agree with the Tennessee Department of Health’s decision to halt vaccination outreach for adolescents?

Yes: 13 (10.7 percent)

No: 99 (81.8 percent)

Unsure: 9 (7.4 percent)

The Knox County Health Department operates Independently of the Tennessee Department of Health. Should KCHD change its vaccine outreach efforts to align with the state’s new policy?

Yes: 17 (13.9 percent)

No: 91 (74.6 percent)

Unsure: 14 (11.5 percent)

How concerned are you that the state’s new policy will lead to a surge in new COVID-19 cases?

Very Concerned: 75 (61.5 percent)

Somewhat Concerned: 26 (21.3 percent)

Unconcerned: 21 (17.2 percent)

Have you been vaccinated against COVID-19?

Yes, fully: 118 (97.5 percent)

Yes, partially: 0 (0 percent)

No: 3 (2.5 percent)

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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