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Covering state lawmakers, bills, and policy emerging from Jefferson City.

New Health Director Says Answer To Missouri’s COVID-19 Spike Is Simple: Vaccinations

Governor's Office

Gov. Mike Parson picked a veteran of Illinois’ emergency management and public health agencies to lead the department that plays a big role in Missouri’s COVID-19 response.

And in his introductory remarks Wednesday to reporters in Jefferson City, Don Kauerauf said there’s a clear solution to Missouri’s rise in COVID-19 cases.

“This all comes back to people need to get vaccinated. It’s a clear answer,” Kauerauf said. “People need to get vaccinated. If you don’t understand the vaccine or need additional information, seek your medical provider. Seek your health authority.”

Kauerauf was assistant director of the Illinois Department of Public Health from 2016 until his retirement in 2018. He’s been serving as chair of the Illinois Terrorism Task Force throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Kauerauf’s appointment brought a strong statement of approval from St. Clair County Health Department Executive Director Myla Oliver-Blandford.

“Don has been a consistent entity in Illinois State government with both the [Illinois Department of Health] and [Illinois Emergency Management Agency] and will serve the State of Missouri and its residents well,” Oliver-Blandford said.

He said there’s a clear nexus between serving in emergency management and managing a public health agency such as the Department of Health and Senior Services.

“Today’s public health requires someone to make quick decisions, be able to weigh all the options and be able to arrive at a decision to protect the public’s health,” Kauerauf said. “Some of the core values of emergency management and public health are the ability to communicate, coordinate and collaborate. And as we’ve seen throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, these are the core values you must be able to obtain.”

Kauerauf will succeed Robert Knodell, who was serving in an interim capacity after the resignation of Randall Williams. It comes as the delta variant continues to spread throughout the state, especially in rural parts of Missouri that have lower vaccination percentages.

Kauerauf said other states are also having trouble persuading some people to get the COVID-19 shot.

“Question comes up: How can you improve the public health system with COVID? Get vaccinated,” Kauerauf said. “The governor was quite specific in that the people need to get the right choice. Don’t look at social media. Go to the trusted agents to get the right answers.”

That’s in reference to Parson’s earlier comments in the news conference in which he told Missourians “to turn off the clutter” and the “doom-and-gloom scenarios that are out there throughout our state.”

“I ask you to go to your health care leaders in your communities and the people you trust: your doctors, clergy, to people you know who will give you good information and be able to make your judgments about getting the vaccine,” Parson said. “I encourage you to do that and make your decision for you and your family.”

Asked whether including verbiage about Missourians “making their own decisions” about getting vaccinated “pulled the punch” on his messaging, Parson replied: “I don’t think so. … Maybe people read it that way. But here’s the thing I’m trying to [say]: We’re not going to force anybody to take a vaccine in this state.

“We’re not going to mandate it and we’re not going to force people to do that,” Parson said. “But we do want to encourage the ones that are really on the bubble, maybe the ones that are trying to figure out ‘Do I or do I not,’ we want to encourage those people to get the vaccine. But what we need now is good information to those people so they can make good decisions.”

St. Louis Public Radio

Meanwhile in St. Louis County, County Executive Sam Page extolled people, including those who have gotten the vaccine, to wear masks in public. This comes as the region’s officials are sounding alarms over rising hospitalizations.

Page said the community is seeing “vaccine hesitancy morph into vaccine hostility.”

“While we don’t have an announcement today, this is a topic of conversation, and it’s ongoing,” Page said in regard to a potential mask mandate.

St. Louis County won’t have as much latitude to implement health orders to combat COVID-19 because of a new state law that requires county council approval of any restriction that goes beyond 30 days.

Page said he’s going to be checking with the county’s lawyers to see if that applies to mask mandates. The bill’s summary states that county council action is required to extend any action that “directly or indirectly closes, partially closes, or places restrictions on the opening of or access to any one or more businesses, churches, schools, or other places of gathering or assembly.”

“If the recommendation of the experts in the public health department and the experts of the Pandemic Task Force in order to save lives in the community is a mask mandate, I would be surprised if the council didn’t support that,” Page said.

During an episode of Politically Speaking, St. Louis County Council Chairwoman Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, said she would have to talk with her colleagues and officials from Page’s administration before the council extends any potential mask mandate.

“Not the fact that we want to upend the mandates or we want to do away with the mandates,” Days said. “We wanted to hear what the process was when coming to that decision. And I don’t think that’s out of line with what our legislative responsibilities are.”

St. Louis Public Radio’s Eric Schmid provided information for this story.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio

Since entering the world of professional journalism in 2006, Jason Rosenbaum dove head first into the world of politics, policy and even rock and roll music. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Rosenbaum spent more than four years in the Missouri State Capitol writing for the Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri Lawyers Media and the St. Louis Beacon. Since moving to St. Louis in 2010, Rosenbaum's work appeared in Missouri Lawyers Media, the St. Louis Business Journal and the Riverfront Times' music section. He also served on staff at the St. Louis Beacon as a politics reporter. Rosenbaum lives in Richmond Heights with with his wife Lauren and their two sons.