KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Four Republican state lawmakers sent a letter to Governor Bill Lee asking him to go against federal recommendations to give COVID-19 vaccines to children under 5 years old.
Representative Jason Zachary (R - Knoxville) signed the letter along with Cameron Sexton (R - Crossville), William Lamberth (R - Portland) and Jeremy Faison (R - Cosby). Zachary and Sexton were previously among several state lawmakers to receive a federal subpoena in connection to a years-long investigation into wire fraud.
Their letter specifically asked the governor to tell the Tennessee Department of Health to stop distributing the vaccine to children under 5 years old. It also asks the governor to stop any "promotion or recommendation" of the COVID-19 vaccine for children under 5 years old.
"We simply cannot recommend injecting an mRNA vaccine into children who have never been at serious risk from death or hospitalization from COVID-19," the letter says. "We do not know the short-term and long-term impact on their development and overall health."
Amanda Collins, who is running against Zachary to represent District 14, shared her disappointment with the letter.
"Zachary is hurting families by taking away healthy choices for Tennessee parents," Collins said in the letter. "Zachary wants to restrict the peace and freedoms that families with young children could finally get from these vaccines."
In February 2022, a 7-year-old girl died in Knoxville from COVID-19, soon after her baby sister was born.
"Thank you for your continued leadership of our great state," the letter also says. "We are fortunate to live in a state that always prioritizes the Constitutional rights and individual liberty of every citizen."
On Saturday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended COVID-19 vaccines for one of the final groups in the U.S. who have yet to receive it — children under 5 years old. The vaccines were approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“We know millions of parents and caregivers are eager to get their young children vaccinated, and with today’s decision, they can,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky in a previous statement, the director of the CDC.
Two brands — Pfizer and Moderna — got the green light Friday from the FDA and Saturday from the CDC. The vaccines use the same technology but are being offered at different dose sizes and numbers of shots for the youngest kids.
The office of Governor Bill Lee said they received the letter. They did not say if they planned to comply with the requests of Republican lawmakers in Tennessee's legislature.
"We are facing troubling directives from the federal government that require unwavering conservative leadership on behalf of our most vulnerable Tennesseans," the letter says.
In the letter, they listed five questions they had about the vaccine. One question assumed that data related to vaccine trials among children were thrown out "to fit a pre-determined conclusion."
Dr. Bill Smith, a vaccine trial researcher for AMR Knoxville said that some of the questions were also asked out of context.
"I think they are doing the community a disservice," he said. "I think there's some information there that is being taken out of context."
Smith said the vaccine is safe and there are some reasons several children may not have completed the trials. Small children are more likely to drop out of clinical trials and since the data compiles research over time, some of the test subjects may not have finished all the required shots yet.
"There's usually a high dropout rate among young infants," Smith said. "The study was stopped before all the people had the chance to reach the final data point for this initial analysis."
Trials can also place financial strains on patients' families or lead to simple scheduling issues, according to researchers.
Dr. William Schaffner specializes in infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University. He said while COVID-19 is statistically less serious in younger children, it can still lead to severe illnesses or death.
"COVID-19 is now the fifth-leading cause of death of children between 6 months of age and 4 years," Schaffner said. "For those families, it's 100%."
Data show more than 200 children in that age group have died from COVID-19. Doctors said four children have died from COVID-19 in Tennessee.
"That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as the CDC and those of us who are infectious diseases doctors and public health doctors, are recommending that parents talk to pediatricians, talk to their family doctors, ask your questions and become comfortable and reassured that vaccinating children is really an appropriate and good thing to do," Schaffner said.