For about as long as certain Republicans and conservative figures have questioned the safety and efficacy of the coronavirus vaccines, those people have offered a disclaimer: They’re not anti-vaccine, they’re just asking questions. And asking questions is valid. But those questions often devolved well into conspiracy theorizing and claiming the vaccine effort was something that it wasn’t, using dodgy data and innuendo that had the predictable result of making about half of Republicans say they aren’t getting the shot. And they did so with little pushback from pro-vaccine Republicans.

On Tuesday came perhaps the biggest example of where this often careless vaccine skepticism can lead. Tennessee’s Department of Health is reportedly going to stop not just encouraging minors to get the coronavirus vaccine, but also informing them about that vaccine — or any other vaccines.

The Nashville Tennessean has the scoop:

The Tennessee Department of Health will halt all adolescent vaccine outreach — not just for coronavirus, but all diseases — amid pressure from Republican state lawmakers, according to an internal report and agency emails obtained by the Tennessean. If the health department must issue any information about vaccines, staff are instructed to strip the agency logo off the documents.
The health department will also stop all COVID-19 vaccine events on school property, despite holding at least one such event this month. The decisions to end vaccine outreach and school events come directly from Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, the internal report states.
Additionally, the health department will take steps to ensure it no longer sends postcards or other notices reminding teenagers to get their second dose of the coronavirus vaccines. Postcards will still be sent to adults, but teens will be excluded from the mailing list so the postcards are not “potentially interpreted as solicitation to minors,” the report states.

To reiterate, this would go far beyond merely preventing the government from encouraging minors to get a vaccine, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said is worthwhile for teens and young adults. It wouldn’t even allow for reminding minors who have gotten the first shot — for whom this vaccination decision has seemingly been made by them and/or their parents — to get a second shot. It also comes a day after we learned that the state’s top vaccination official was fired amid pressure from Republican lawmakers.

“It was my job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against COVID-19,” Michelle Fiscus said in a statement. “I have now been terminated for doing exactly that.”

The move also notably includes communications about other vaccines — which suggests that the vaccine skepticism that undergirds it appears to be spreading more generally to vaccines as a whole:

[Chief Medical Officer Tim] Jones told staff they should conduct “no proactive outreach regarding routine vaccines” and “no outreach whatsoever regarding the HPV vaccine.”
Staff were also told not to do any “pre-planning” for flu shots events at schools. Any information released about back-to-school vaccinations should come from the Tennessee Department of Education, not the Tennessee Department of Health, Jones wrote.

The state department of health had previously done outreach on vaccines including HPV, measles and Meningitis.

There are perhaps valid questions about whether such communications should target minors. The lumping in of both second-shot communications and communications about other, more lengthily studied vaccines, though, points to something bigger than just asking questions about and not wanting to push too hard on this particular vaccine.

“No back-to-school messaging to the more than 30,000 parents who did not get their children measles vaccines last year due to the pandemic,” Fiscus said. “No messaging around human papilloma virus vaccine to the residents of the state with one of the highest HPV cancer rates in the country. No observation of National Immunization Awareness Month in August. No reminders to the parents of teens who are late in receiving their second COVID-19 vaccine. THIS is a failure of public health to protect the people of Tennessee and THAT is what is ‘reprehensible.' ”

This has been lurking beneath the surface for a long time. Former president Donald Trump before he became president repeatedly cited debunked links between vaccines and autism. GOP officials like Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) have also cast doubt on vaccines for children, with Stitt saying he didn’t get vaccinations for some of his children.

Until about a year ago, this was a much more bipartisan issue, with reservations about vaccination spanning from well-to-do West Coast liberals to more anti-government conservatives. What has transpired since then has been the anti-vaccine movement blowing up more on the right than the left, despite Trump having claimed credit for the production of the vaccine during his administration.

The news in Tennessee suggests this is indeed seeping well into actual government action. And given the fervor on some portions of the right, you can bet some red states will soon emulate it now that Tennessee has broken the seal.

Shortly before the Tennessean’s report Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), who is a polio survivor who has repeatedly supported the coronavirus vaccine, was asked about Republicans who have cast doubt on the vaccines.

“I can only speak for myself,” he said, “and I just did a few minutes ago.”

The developments in his state’s neighbor to the south would seem to suggest GOP advocates who truly want to get people vaccinated might want to adopt a more forceful posture about the misinformation plaguing significant portions of their party. State GOP officials have repeatedly invited extreme vaccine skeptics to testify to promote claims that include that the coronavirus vaccine magnetizes its recipients, among other wild theories. They’ve turned a blind eye to their colleagues and influential cable news hosts like Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who carelessly promotes skepticism about the vaccines in the name of questioning the federal government.

The point isn’t that vaccines can’t be questioned; it’s that the questioning of them has often devolved into specious claims and very different places than lawmakers like McConnell and most big-name Republicans profess to be. But calling that out apparently doesn’t work in a party so defined by and worried about alienating its extreme wing.

The question from here is how much Tennessee is a precursor to the dam breaking on this kind of thing in other states, and whether the coronavirus vaccine skeptic movement will indeed spread to other vaccines.