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Marvia Jones named first Black female director of Kansas City Health Department

A Black woman wearing glasses talks from a podium. A sign that reads "Health Department" is behind her.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Marvia Jones answers questions from the media Friday. Jones, a specialist in violence prevention, is the first Black woman to run the Kansas City Health Department.

Jones takes over leadership of Kansas City's health department as COVID-19 cases run high, and as Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt challenges the authority of local health agencies to issue mitigation orders.

Marvia Jones, who previously served as the Kansas City Health Department’s violence prevention and policy manager, has been appointed as the department’s director, the city announced Friday morning.

Jones received a Ph.D in behavioral health and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Kansas. She says she wants to build on the health department’s innovative strategies.

“Community engagement is integral to public health because it demonstrates to residents that they have value, and that their voice is respected,” Jones said in a press release.

Jones will succeed Dr. Rex Archer, who headed the health department for 23 years before retiring in August. She is the first appointed Black director and first appointed female director of the health department.

In a press conference Friday afternoon, Jones said that her first priority is addressing the current low morale among health department staff.

“The nurses that we have, all the folks working on COVID-19, they are just really worn down,” Jones said. “We’re really looking at, what do we need to do about pay and retention, and then just showing people we’re listening to you. What can we do to make your life more bearable here?”

She enters the role during a particularly challenging time, when new COVID-19 cases in the Kansas City area remain higher than at any point in the pandemic. But the completed vaccination rate for Kansas City, Missouri, has reached just 57.4%, only slightly higher than the state average.

Jones said that she wants to redouble efforts to address public safety concerns about vaccinations, and she views boosting children’s vaccination rates as an especially important goal.

“We don’t have enough kids who are vaccinated,” Jones said. “And so we just want to continue to drive home the message, ‘Hey, this is safe, and it’s available.”

The health department is also looking at increasing COVID-19 testing options, Jones said.

Meanwhile, the authority of Missouri health departments and school districts is being challenged by Attorney General Eric Schmitt.

In recent months, Kansas City leaders have largely backed away from the more aggressive mitigation strategies, like business restrictions, used earlier in the pandemic.

Asked about Schmitt’s challenges, Jones insisted that her job was to focus on health.

“My goal here is to make sure that we’re really following the data, and that we’re doing the best that we can to prepare good recommendations so that the folks making those policies have what they need to make them," Jones said.

In Friday's press release, Mayor Quinton Lucas voiced his support for Jones.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, we have seen the leadership role the Kansas City Health Department plays in regional policymaking in both Missouri and Kansas, and I am certain Kansas City and our region will look to Dr. Jones as we continue our work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Lucas said.

Jones is originally from Florida, and has lived in Kansas City for 12 years — minus a two year fellowship with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where she researched prevention tools.

She directed programs at Communities Creating Opportunities before joining the health department in 2019.

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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