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Muzzle sent to Tenn. vaccine expert was bought on Amazon account, credit card in her name, report says

Tennessee’s former top vaccination official, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, told state investigators in July that she received a dog muzzle in the mail, which she deemed to be a threat to keep her quiet.

The muzzle, however, was bought on an Amazon account and with an American Express card in her name, according to a state investigation that concluded Monday.

“There is no evidence to indicate the dog muzzle was intended to threaten Dr. Fiscus,” said the report, written by Special Agent Mario Vigil of the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Dr. Michelle Fiscus holds up a muzzle at her home in Franklin, Tenn., on July 14.Stephanie Amador / The Tennessean

Fiscus, a pediatrician, was the state’s medical director of the Vaccine Preventable Disease and Immunization Program. She was fired July 12 in a political firestorm, less that two weeks after, she said, she was mailed the muzzle.

She has said her firing was a political decision to placate lawmakers who disapproved of the Health Department’s outreach to vaccinate teenagers against Covid-19.

Fiscus could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday. She told NBC affiliate WSMV of Nashville that she acknowledges that the muzzle was paid for using an American Express that belongs to her but that she “vehemently denies” buying the muzzle and sending it to herself.

“I’ve thought about who could be to blame. It’s not anything that I have any evidence to show,” Fiscus told WSMV. “I think there is just a lot of layers here that … I don’t understand.”

Fiscus tweeted Monday night that “the state’s investigation did NOT conclude I sent the muzzle.”

“In fact, it only concluded my credit card was charged with the incorrect billing address – my state work office – to an Amazon account I didn’t know existed,” she said in the tweet.

“That account was apparently accessed from the State of Washington, where I had never been, by a cell phone using a carrier I have never used,” she said in another tweet. “I have asked the state for the full unredacted report and am awaiting a response.”

The report, which was reviewed by NBC News, was partly redacted. At times, it omitted names or personal identifiers, such as phone numbers.

An investigation was opened July 7 when a doctor with the state Health Department contacted the state’s homeland security director, Greg Mays, and expressed concern that the muzzle was intended as a threat, according to the report.

Two special agents met with Fiscus on July 8. She told them that the muzzle was delivered to her office in an Amazon package July 2 but that she did not open it until July 6, after the holiday weekend, the report said. There was no return address or other identifying data to indicate who sent the “silicon basket dog muzzle,” the report said.

Fiscus said she first thought a colleague had sent her the muzzle as a joke. But when the colleague denied having sent it, Fiscus told investigators that she viewed it as a veiled threat.

“Dr. Fiscus said she felt it was a threat and that she should stop talking about vaccinating people,” the report said. “Due to her role in the vaccination program and her authoring a memo on Tennessee’s ‘Mature Minor’ Doctrine that she had been singled out for criticism by some people in the public, as well as several Tennessee Legislators.”

A special agent contacted Amazon on July 8 about the muzzle. An Amazon employee told the agent that without a subpoena, he could do only a cursory bar code search. The employee said that based on the search, “the receiver (Dr. Fiscus) was also the sender, but he could not be certain,” the report said.

An investigator then spoke to Fiscus, who told the special agent that she had no knowledge of who sent the muzzle or why Amazon indicated that she had sent it. The report also said Fiscus allowed investigators to access an Amazon account in her name and to view archived purchases from the account. The account did not list the muzzle as a purchased item, the report said. Fiscus also said neither her husband nor her daughter sent the muzzle, the report said.

After a judge signed off on a subpoena ordering Amazon to provide more details about the account behind the muzzle, investigators learned that “the account which the muzzle had been purchased on was in Dr. Fiscus’ name and had been opened in March 2021.”

Investigators also asked a judge to subpoena the service provider of the phone number listed on the Amazon account the muzzle was purchased on, the investigation said. Records provided to the investigation showed that the carrier was T-Mobile.

Although Fiscus said her termination was political, state documents say she was fired because she was a poor leader and manager.

Tennessee’s chief medical officer, Dr. Tim Jones, recommended removing Fiscus partly because of complaints about her leadership approach and because of how she handled a letter about the vaccination rights of minors, which prompted outrage among Republican legislators, state records show.

The Associated Press contributed.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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