KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Missouri has a new director leading the Department of Health and Senior Services amid a continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
He said communication and collaboration with be fundamental to the department going forward.
Donald Kauerauf, who took over the position from Dr. Randall Williams earlier this month, addressed reporters on Thursday to discuss how he would continue the department's response to COVID-19, and how he would lead once the pandemic comes to a close.
“Public health is not political, it has never been and it never should be," Kauerauf said. "Public health is about the science.”
It does not seem the department will be attempting to institute mask or vaccine requirements going forward. Kauerauf supported masks and vaccines for Missourians, but said he did not like the word "mandate."
"The community has to assess what their needs are," Kauerauf said. "One size does not fit all.”
Instead, Kauerauf hopes to focus on getting Missourians the right information about masks and vaccines, so they can make "the right decision."
He cited data in the state that said roughly 50% of those eligible had gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and a nationwide study that indicated about 20% of Americans would not consider getting a vaccine at all. He said that means there's about 30% of Missourians who could be vaccinated if they get the right information.
“Those that are people still needing accurate information to make the right decision,” he said.
However, Kaueraf also said that data indicates most people who are hesitant to get vaccinated, finally do after their community becomes significantly impacted by the virus. He said this was demonstrated in Springfield, where vaccination rates rose after a surge in cases.
“When they see firsthand that destruction that this outbreak incurs in their communities, they realize getting vaccinated is the right step," Kaueraf said.
Kauerauf also drew attention to the need for a more serious response to the delta variant. He said people need to think about the variant differently than they did about the initial strains of the virus.
"The COVID from 2020 and the COVID today are different," he said.
But, he said, the way to combat the virus remains the same.
“We know vaccines work," Kauerauf said. He also mentioned masks.
“Everything I have read, everything I have seen, masks work," he said.
Kauerauf graduated from Illinois State University before pursuing a career in public health.
He previously served in leadership positions in the state of Illinois, including as assistant director of its health department, and has more than 30 years of experience as a state government worker.
When the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, Kauerauf said he hopes to make prevention a cornerstone of public health in the state, which consistently ranks among the worst in the country, both in terms of funding for public health and health indicators.
To do this, he wants to keep collaboration and clear information as priorities in the department.
“My strength of ability is bringing people together," Kauerauf said.