JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The state’s new health director said the new law limiting the authority of public health officials worries him. Another concern of his – vaccination numbers.
Less than three weeks into the job, Don Kauerauf told reporters Thursday that masks work. He said there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution but believes the state health department should provide baseline guidance for schools and communities to follow.
To date, only 46.6% of Missourians are fully vaccinated, a percentage the director for the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) said needs to increase.
“Still Missouri is well below where we should be in vaccinations. We’ve got to get better,” said Kauerauf, the former assistant director for the Illinois Department of Public Health. “That’s going to be our key. Those people that are hesitant, get them vaccinated.”
Kauerauf took over as the director of DHSS on Sept. 1, after Dr. Randall Williams was asked to resign in April. He said a mandate is a political decision and instead wants Missourians to take personal responsibility.
“The word mandate is a word I cannot stand,” Kauerauf said. “I think in the public health world, when you start saying the word “mandate,” you’re basically acknowledging that everything else has failed.”
He told lawmakers Wednesday he wears a mask because of his daughter who has various cardiac conditions and special needs.
“I wear a mask and I would recommend to anyone to wear a mask if you’re in those areas where there’s a chance of passing or receiving the virus,” Kauerauf said. “We know it does work, the mask does provider a barrier.”
The new director stressed to reporters during a media call the importance of local decisions, which is why a new law in Missouri has him concerned.
“This is one that haunts me,” Kauerauf said about House Bill 271. “This is the one I’m worried about. Public health is not politics.”
HB 271 limits local orders restricting businesses, churches, schools, or gatherings to 30 days under a statewide emergency unless approved by a majority vote of the local governing body, like a city council. If there is no emergency, then the restriction or order could only last for 21 days unless approved.
“Public health is going to happen after COVID and if we’ve lost that local respect of the system, how are we going to recover from that?,” Kauerauf said. “It should be a concern to all us is that loss of respect, and we cannot set a public health system back.”
Kauerauf praised the state’s vaccine incentive program, MOVIP which has received 45,000 entries according to DHSS, saying it came at the perfect time.
“This program most certainly provided vaccinated at the most critical time for Missourians that if we did get a certain percentage of the population that got vaccinated because of this MOVIP, it was at the right time when the Delta Variant was first taking off in this state,” Kauerauf said.
Even with the incentive program, he said the state is seeing a rise in vaccinations when a community is being ravaged by the variant.
“It’s clear the importance of vaccinations,” Kauerauf said.
He said the state health department is working to release new guidance to schools and local communities but did not elaborate on the ideas. Instead, Kauerauf said the goal is to keep kids in school, especially after seeing the test results of the assessment for students released by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education earlier this week.
“That’s alarming and understanding that some of the core math subjects where they’ve had some of the greatest decreases,” Kauerauf said. “We are going to have some documentation that we are working on now for schools, to provide some clear ideas to achieve that keep kids in schools, allowing the locals to customize to the point where it’s really addressing the needs of that community.”
According to the Missouri Hospital Association, nearly one in three Missouri children ages 12 to 17 have been vaccinated, but earlier this month, a record of 1,133 children under 18 tested positive for COVID, a record-setting number.
Kauerauf said he has been married for 26 years to his wife that is also in public health, as the chief of communicable disease for the Illinois Department of Public Health, and has triplets who are 22 years old.