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Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said Thursday he asked Health and Senior Services Director Randall Williams to resign, and now expects to see the department “rebuilt” with a new director and an influx of federal funds.
But Parson provided no further details about the reasons for Williams’ departure, which comes after four tumultous years capped by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I thought it was the best thing for the cabinet, the best thing for the governor’s office that we go in different directions,” he told reporters.
Parson announced Williams’ resignation this week and replaced him temporarily with his deputy chief of staff Robert Knodell, a leading figure in the state’s vaccine rollout. His administration has refused to release a copy of the resignation letter, calling it a personnel document.
The move came as the state has entered a phase of declining interest in the COVID-19 vaccine. As of Thursday, 45% of adults in Missouri had gotten the first dose, but Parson said demand has “dropped off drastically” in the last two weeks. Experts say roughly 75 to 80% of the public needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.
Addressing Williams’ resignation, Parson said the past year has been a “very stressful environment” for his cabinet but said he was not dissatisfied with Williams’ performance. He also said now is a good time to recruit a new health director, hinting he may have wanted a change earlier.
“When you’re going through the election process, it’s very hard to recruit anybody, not knowing whether you’re going to be elected governor,” he said. “We’re going to look for the best qualified person wherever they are.”
Williams, an obstetrician and gynecologist who took the post under former Gov. Eric Greitens, weathered a series of controversies over decisions that critics said were made with politics, not public health, as a priority. Those included the administration’s rejection of statewide mask mandates and business closures during the pandemic, the health department’s licensing fight with the state’s only abortion clinic and the widely-criticized handling of medical marijuana licenses.
Parson on Thursday acknowledged Williams’ bumpy tenure but said he believed he did “outstanding work.”
“I push hard” on the cabinet, Parson said. “I expect high-quality work. I expect people to do their jobs. Dr. Williams, he’s a friend, he’s done a great job since he’s been with me. He’s been loyal to me every since he’s come here. I wish him the best, and sometimes you have to sit down and talk to people at the table and you got to see what the best move forward is.”
He implied the same thing happened with Drew Erdmann, the state’s chief operating officer who has also resigned.
“When I sat down with both [Williams] and Drew, we talked about things, the future and we thought it was the best thing to do to part ways at this point,” he said.
Parson’s looking to fill the health director position soon, he said.
Knodell, the acting director, does not have a medical background, which drew criticism Tuesday from St. Louis Rep. LaDonna Appelbaum, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Health and Mental Health Policy Committee.
Parson said Thursday he appointed Knodell because the deputy health director’s position was cut by lawmakers in 2018 over the administration’s refusal to say how many people had tested positive for the potentially deadly Bourbon virus.
Knodell “has been involved in COVID-19 since the beginning,” he said. “He was a logical candidate for now, but look, this is a very temporary assignment.”