After an unproven company with Republican Party ties won a no-bid contract with Tennessee to produce COVID-19 tests, a whistleblower says the state health commissioner suggested using them on "healthier" people such as "college kids" after they proved unreliable.
Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who was fired this month as the state's top immunization official in a dispute over vaccinating teens, said she was shocked by the $26.5 million deal -- and even further shocked by health commissioner Lisa Piercey's reaction when the tests turned up false negative results as health officials had warned, reported WTVF-TV.
"I think everyone was pretty shocked when they found out that the contract was all but sealed," Fiscus told the TV station.
An Atlanta-based GOP political consultant contacted Republican Gov. Bill Lee's chief of staff, who then put him in touch with Piercey, who quickly signed off on the deal with Nomi Health despite what Fiscus describes as some obvious red flags.
"Unproven company dropping equipment off at the lab that the lab didn't vet," Fiscus said. "I think just a lack of understanding about what a lab of that quality has to go through to prove that the testing that it's doing is reliable."
Utah businessman Mark Newman pivoted his company, Nomi Health, into the test-making business early in the pandemic, but Fiscus said the point person for the deal stumbled during one of the first presentations before Tennessee's testing experts.
"He eventually said, 'Well, you know, we've only been doing this about four weeks,'" Fiscus said. "'I'm actually a Ring doorbell guy.'"
Fiscus alerted Piercey that the deal should be called off immediately because "it's a disaster."
"The optics of doing this are going to be horrible when we start testing minority populations with substandard testing," Fiscus said in a text to the health commissioner. "We have got to stop this."
Fiscus and others warned the tests were likely to produce false negatives, and she said they could not be used for HUD housing residents or other minority populations, but she was alarmed by Piercey's response.
"I wouldn't suggest that you use it in those populations," Piercey said by phone, according to Fiscus. "Use it in a healthier population, like college kids."
Fiscus said she was "appalled" and considered resigning over the situation, although the contract was eventually terminated -- with a $6 million taxpayer buyout to Nomi -- after the state's health laboratory confirmed the tests were too unreliable for use.
"She was going to put everything out to make sure that this contract went through and was successful -- and it didn't matter that the test was garbage, that the PPE was garbage," Fiscus said. "It was a $26 million contract -- none of that mattered. None of that mattered."