New Missouri health director working to rebuild public trust in health officials

Regional News

Don Kauerauf, director of Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The state’s new health director believes in prevention and wants Missourians to receive regular health screenings but he’s concerned the pandemic has caused people to doubt public health.

Don Kauerauf said his job as the director for the Department of Health and Senior Services is to improve health and safety for the state. For the first time since taking on the role, Kauerauf sat down for a television interview with our Missouri Capitol Bureau Chief Emily Manley to talk about why he wanted to come to Missouri and his concerns about public health.

“It worries me and haunts me that the fact that we lost that trust in a system that has evolved over decades, over centuries, the public health system. How do we rebuild that?” Kauerauf said.

The past 18 months have been anything but normal, especially for public health.

“I guess I had to learn kind of a little bit of a new public health,” Kauerauf said. “This is not what I’m used to and to be honest with you, I haven’t accepted that.”

Gov. Mike Parson named Kauerauf as the state’s new health director in July after Dr. Randall Williams was asked to resign in April. Parson the announcement at a time when Delta Variant cases were surging.

“The first thing that popped in my mind, wear your mask, get vaccinated,” Kauerauf said when asked about what was going through his head in July.

He served as the assistant director for the Illinois Department of Public Health until 2018 and retired Dec. 31, 2018, until his new role in Missouri. Kauerauf told lawmakers last week and said Wednesday he does not like the word “mandate.”

“A mandate is just a term putting out there that’s not enforceable,” Kauerauf said. “A mandate is a failure.”

Kauerauf told lawmakers during a House committee hearing last week, he wears a mask because of his family. His daughter has various cardiac conditions and special needs.

“I feel more comfortable wearing a mask because I know that it creates a barrier between myself and the virus,” Kauerauf said.

The new director stressed the importance of local decisions, which is why a new law in Missouri has him concerned.

“The part that troubles me is the fact that there is growing mistrust of the public health, the whole system of public health,” Kauerauf said. “The nervousness comes from the fact that when COVID is over, we’re going to have to do public health.”

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.

In his first few weeks as director, he’s worked on issuing new information to schools.

“We’ve provided schools with very specific guidance on how to issue quarantine,” Kauerauf said. “Some of those actually call for donning masks, that’s how you stay safe here.”

Earlier this schools year, Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit against districts with mask mandates. The case is in front of a Boone County judge for the first time next week. Kauerauf said it should be up to the schools to decide.

“I don’t think I’m going to get caught up in the rhetoric of lawsuits and those types of issues,” Kauerauf said. “My job is to implement public health and to provide guidance to local officials.”

He said school districts and boards have the right to enforce a mask mandate if they so chose.

“Local health agencies have those discretions to implement those controls as needed,” Kauerauf said. “Our focus is public health. We hope that people listen to the experts and follow directions.”

His current goal is to get more Missourians vaccinated.

“We’re going to try different approaches now. We’re going to try to do very targeted, trying to find working through the various data sources of who are those people,” Kauerauf said. “Our biggest problem with getting the hesitant or what I think are hesitant is still the factor of the outside social media providing false information, false narrative to them.”

To date, only 47.1% of Missourians are fully vaccinated.

Kauerauf said the state is working with school districts to discuss a new program to use after a student comes in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID. The program is called “test-to-stay.” It allows students to stay in school as long as he or she has no symptoms and test negative for a certain number of consecutive days. He said states like Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Utah already used the program and have had no increase in cases.

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 number of 1,133 children under 18 tested positive for COVID.

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.

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