What should a state health department do when its newly elected congressman gets a rush of social media attention for challenging the science behind vaccines?
Department of Health officials in Tennessee struggled on the best way to respond after Republican Rep. Mark Green told a town hall meeting last month, without citing evidence, that vaccines cause autism. Green also claimed that the federal government was hiding information about the negative side effects of vaccines. And through a lobbyist, he challenged the health department to prove wrong two studies championed by the anti-vaccine movement.
The Associated Press made a public records request to see how the health agency reacted, and received nearly 200 documents. Among them are emails that show top medical officers ultimately turned to a higher power — NASA — for guidance.
Chief Medical Officer David Reagan shared a link to a story about the space agency extending an invite to Stephen Curry after the Golden State Warriors star denied humans had visited the moon. Curry quickly accepted the gesture and took back his comments, saying that he was joking, and believes the moon landing was no hoax.
“With regards to the statements by representative elect Green…an analogy from NASA,” Regan wrote the morning of Dec. 13, attaching a link to NASA’s invite.
“I like it,” responded Tennessee Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner.
Dreyzehner then asked if Reagan was suggesting the department invite anyone to have their questions about vaccines answered by the chief medical officer.
“Yes, although I was specifically inviting Rep-elect Green,” Reagan responded. “The discussion would likely be informative and helpful, and we may gain a friend.”
Hours later, officials issued a blunt statement: “Vaccines do not cause autism. Vaccines save lives,” along with an invitation, urging anyone with questions to contact the department. The brief statement didn’t mention Green by name.
Green has since walked back his December comments somewhat, but has yet to say that he, like Curry, was just having fun by calling established science into doubt.
At the time, the AP asked if the health department’s statement was a direct response to Green’s vaccine comments. An agency spokeswoman declined to comment, saying the statement spoke for itself. The records show, however, that department officials did have Green’s comment in mind while drafting and editing their vaccine statement. They show officials joked over Green’s stance, and marveled over the national attention the situation was receiving.
“You saw the statements that prompted this, right?” said Director of Communications and Media Relations Shelley Walker.
“It’s amazing how much attention one goofball can get,” State Epidemiologist Tim Jones responded a few emails later.
Meanwhile, Green was in talks with lobbyist Jim Schmidt with the Tennessee chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics to see if the Department of Health would contradict two studies questioning the value of vaccines.
“Please ask your guys to look at these and let me know if there is new data to refute them,” Green emailed Schmidt on Dec. 12.
Green’s request was eventually circulated among some of the top health officials at the health department on Dec. 14.
“It depends on his tolerance for honesty,” Jones wrote.
“Ha!” wrote back Deputy Medical Director Michelle Fiscus.
Green’s name has been floated as a possible Republican candidate for the upcoming open Senate seat after U.S. Lamar Alexander announced he’ll retire in 2020. Like the health department, Alexander released a statement supporting the value of vaccines.
Alexander later told the AP that it’s his duty to set the record straight as chairman of the Senate’s health committee.