The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A vaccine expert said she was mailed a muzzle before being fired. It was bought with her credit card, agents say.

Michelle Fiscus speaks to the Associated Press via a video call on July 13. (AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Michelle Fiscus met with state investigators in July to report the suspicious package mailed to her office containing a silicone dog muzzle.

During the meeting, the then-medical director of Tennessee’s immunization program told agents she suspected the Amazon package from an unknown sender was a “veiled threat.” The muzzle, she said, was meant to make her “stop talking about vaccinating people.”

But just a few weeks after the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security was first notified about the package, state agents learned the muzzle was purchased with a credit card under Fiscus’s name, according to a department report obtained by The Washington Post. (The findings were first reported by Axios.)

“At this time, there appears to be no threat toward Dr. Fiscus associated with receipt of the dog muzzle,” investigator Mario Vigil wrote in the report, which was released Monday.

The case is now closed, a spokesperson with the agency told The Post in an email.

Fiscus has denied purchasing the muzzle, tweeting Monday that her “credit card was charged with the incorrect billing address — my state work office — to an Amazon account I didn’t know existed.”

“No, I didn’t send it to myself,” Fiscus added.

In an email to The Post early Tuesday, Fiscus said Tennessee’s Department of Safety and Homeland Security had denied her request to obtain a subpoena to determine who opened the Amazon account used to make the order. (Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Post.)

“I requested the inquiry from Homeland Security regarding the muzzle and was told it was not a credible threat that warranted a subpoena,” Fiscus said. “I have requested the unredacted report from the agent and was told to contact their legal office, which we have done. From what I can tell from the report, a second Amazon account was opened under my name and linked to my credit card.”

Fiscus, who was fired from the Tennessee Department of Health in mid-July, days after the muzzle was mailed to her office, emerged as a contentious figure during her time as the state’s top immunization official after she proposed that teenagers be allowed to receive doses of coronavirus vaccines without parental consent. The health department released a memo saying Fiscus was fired for lacking interpersonal communication skills, showing poor management and attempting to give funds to a nonprofit she founded, the Nashville Post reported.

Fiscus denied those claims, arguing that her dismissal was politically motivated and that, like several other public health officials, she was “vilified” by angry Republican lawmakers for promoting science.

“This is about … people in power in Tennessee not believing in the importance in vaccinating the people, and so they terminated the person in charge of getting it done,” Fiscus told The Post at the time.

Health official fired in retaliation for coronavirus vaccine guidance for teens, she says

The muzzle arrived at Fiscus’s office on July 2, the report states. She opened the envelope four days later, initially assuming a colleague sent it as a prank, Fiscus told investigators.

She later became concerned about her safety after her colleague denied sending the muzzle, the report states. Fiscus then shared copies of emails sent by state residents who opposed her stance on child vaccinations.

One email read: “As a parent of 3 children in the state of Tennessee, I am putting you on notice that we will be holding you accountable for any adverse effects or deaths on children brought on you by pushing an agenda of an experimental therapy on an age group whose chances of being [affected] by this virus are zero. ZERO!”

Anti-mask protesters in Franklin, Tenn., heckled attendees wearing masks outside a Williamson County school board meeting on Aug. 10. (Video: Reuters)

The same day Fiscus met with state investigators, one of the agents contacted Amazon to get more information about the package’s sender, the report states. The Amazon employee told investigators Fiscus appeared to be both the receiver and the sender. But Fiscus denied shipping herself the muzzle in a follow-up meeting with investigators. She pulled up her Amazon account purchase history, which did not reveal the muzzle, the report states.

That day, Fiscus also contacted her husband and daughter in front of state agents. Both family members stated they had not ordered the muzzle, according to the report.

It wasn’t until a judge signed a subpoena ordering Amazon to provide more details about the sender’s account that investigators learned “the account which the muzzle had been purchased on was in Dr. Fiscus’s name and had been opened in March 2021.”

A judge later signed a second subpoena ordering Amazon to disclose information on all Amazon accounts belonging to Fiscus, the report states.

When Amazon turned over those details on Aug. 7, the report adds, authorities found Fiscus had two Amazon accounts in her name. The first account matched the one she had shown investigators during their interview. The second account — from which the muzzle was purchased — had an American Express credit card under her name listed as the payment method, the report states.

The same credit card is associated with Fiscus’s other Amazon account, the report adds.

In the statement Fiscus provided to The Post, she said the Amazon account used to order the muzzle “appears to have been set up with a ‘burner phone’ using a service we don’t have and from Washington State, where I had not been.”

Brad Fiscus, her husband, told WPLN-FM last week the couple plans to relocate to Virginia amid escalating tensions over masks and vaccines in Tennessee.

Loading...