New head of Missouri state health agency appointed; previously served in Illinois

Jeanne Kuang - The Kansas City Star

Gov. Mike Parson on Wednesday tapped Donald G. Kauerauf to lead the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services as it responds to a surge in COVID-19 across the state.

Kauerauf, who will take over the agency Sept. 1, is a past assistant director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. He will be tasked with transforming the DHSS and leading it past the controversial tenure of its last leader, Randall Williams, who resigned abruptly at Parson’s request earlier this year.

“Don is no stranger to state government and has more than 30 years of experience in public health and emergency management with the state of Illinois,” Parson said. “It is obvious that he has a firm grasp on public health issues and the COVID-19 crisis, and we are confident in his ability to lead DHSS.”

Kauerauf does not have a medical background, a piece of experience Parson said in June he hoped to find in a health director. The governor told reporters last month he would also consider hiring a director with a strong administrative background and bring on a deputy director with medical expertise instead.

Parson’s spokeswoman could not immediately be reached for comment on whether a deputy director was still being considered.

Leadership changes

During the pandemic, Kauerauf chaired the Illinois Terrorism Task Force after retiring from the Illinois Department of Public Health in 2018. He holds a bachelor’s degree in occupational safety and health from Illinois State University.

He said his emergency management experience fits the role well, and expected a “seamless transition” from Illinois, which Kauerauf said has similar demographics and health department programs.

“Today’s public health requires someone to be able to make quick decisions,” he said.

He takes over for Robert Knodell, Parson’s deputy chief of staff and an influential figure in the state’s vaccine rollout, who has been acting director. Knodell also does not have a medical background.

Parson asked Williams to resign in April, in the middle of the state’s vaccine rollout. By that time, Williams had weathered a number of controversies, including a legal battle in 2019 over the administration’s refusal to renew the license of the only abortion facility in the state.

Williams testified during an administrative law hearing in the matter that his department, seeking to identify evidence of failed abortions, had kept a spreadsheet tracking patients’ menstrual cycles. It prompted national outrage and calls for him to resign.

‘People need to get vaccinated’

Kauerauf said he wants DHSS to work with local health departments to boost preventative care, and plans to travel the state to focus on “social determinants of health,” the environmental or economic factors that play a role in people’s chances of illness or life expectancy.

“We need to get citizens to resume regular screenings,” he said. “We need to get citizens to take advantage of those programs and services that they have forgotten or haven’t been able to participate in because of the COVID event.”

Most recently, Kauerauf was policy adviser to the emergency management agency in Illinois, a state that took more aggressive measures to mitigate the pandemic than Missouri. But at a press conference in which Parson also announced a vaccine incentive lottery program amid a surge in COVID among the unvaccinated, Kauerauf said Missouri has “done a great job following CDC guidance.”

“It all comes down to, people need to get vaccinated,” he said. “It’s a clear answer ... Missouri has followed the CDC playbook. And my job is to come in and to build upon that.”