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Missouri's New Health Director Says Better Info, Not Mandates, Will Get COVID Vaccine Rates Above 47%

Using a vinyl holder attached to a lanyard is one way to protect and secure a Vaccination Record Card.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Using a vinyl holder attached to a lanyard is one way to protect and secure a Vaccination Record Card.

Donald Kauerauf, who started at the Department Of Health and Senior Services this month, lamented the public mistrust of health experts but said he "can't stand" the idea of vaccine mandates.

More than half of Missouri’s unvaccinated population can still be convinced to get COVID shots, said Donald Kauerauf, the new head of the state health department.

Even as Kauerauf blasted the public mistrust and undermining of local health officials during the pandemic, on a press call on Thursday he rejected the more aggressive public health measure of mandates to boost vaccinations.

“The word 'mandate' is a word that I can’t stand,” Kauerauf said. “In the public health world, when you start saying the word ‘mandate,’ you’re basically acknowledging that everything else has failed.”

Kauerauf started as director of the Department of Health and Senior Services this month. Unlike his predecessor Dr. Randall Williams, who resigned from his position in April, Kauerauf does not have a medical degree.

Kauerauf told reporters that better public health information would boost COVID-19 vaccinations beyond the state’s low full-vaccination rate of 47%. That's well below the national average, and places Missouri in the bottom quarter of all U.S. states for fully-vaccinated residents.

As of last week, COVID shots in Missouri have slowed to fewer than 10,000 per day.

President Biden announced last weekthat millions of federal employees would be mandated to get vaccines, and that private businesses with 100 employees may be required to vaccinate their staff or test them on a weekly basis.

Missouri’s approach to mitigating COVID-19, as championed by Republican Gov. Mike Parson, has gone against the recommendations of some health experts — such as the state's lack of mask mandates.

Despite that, Kauerauf defended the wearing of masks, which he said are clearly effective for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

New Missouri health department director Donald Kauerauf started in his role at the beginning of September.
Missouri Department of Health And Senior Services
New Missouri health department director Donald Kauerauf started in his role at the beginning of September.

Kauerauf generally declined to comment on Missouri’s earlier pandemic strategy, but he expressed concern about the vilification of local health officials by some members of the public.

“It should be a concern of all of ours, that loss of respect,” Kauerauf said. “We’ve got to renew our trust, that trust we had prior to the pandemic.”

Based on polling information, Kauerauf claimed that an additional 30% of the state’s population can still be persuaded to get vaccine shots, and health officials need to do a better job of targeting messaging to reach specific communities.

He expressed concern about the dated and inaccurate information that he said appears to be informing conversations about the health risks of the more contagious delta variant for children.

“Delta variant is vastly different than the alpha variant,” Kauerauf said. “And for people to go back and said, well, historically, kids aren’t being impacted — that’s not true.”

Kauerauf previously served assistant director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, and he earned a bachelor of science in occupational safety and health from Illinois State University.

He insisted that science would lead his approach, which would closely involve medical experts.

“Although I’m not an M.D., you can rest assured that I’m going to bring in the best medical minds that when you do have decision that affect the public health, it will be a well-thought out and coordinated approach,” Kaureauf said.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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