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Missouri's health director resigns after protests against COVID-19 restrictions

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Missouri's acting health director is out of a job - another public health official facing backlash over COVID-19 prevention measures. Strong opposition came from conservatives. Sarah Kellogg of St. Louis Public Radio reports.

SARAH KELLOGG, BYLINE: It was in July that Republican Governor Mike Parson announced that Don Kauerauf would serve as the director of the Department of Health and Senior Services. Kauerauf came out of retirement after serving as the assistant director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. He started the Missouri job in September. Kauerauf said a clear solution for reducing Missouri's COVID rate was to increase the state's vaccination rate, but he was also against vaccine and mask mandates. It's a position Kauerauf repeated during his hearing this past week to make his appointment permanent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD KAUERAUF: I've said it before. You know, a lot of people in my position - they try to vilify those that aren't vaccinated. I'm not going to do that. It's their choice. If they have the correct information and they decide not to get vaccinated, I respect that.

KELLOGG: Because Kauerauf began his job when the Missouri Senate was not in session, he was able to serve as director but had to receive approval within 30 days after the Senate reconvened in January. But just hours before he sat down to answer senators' questions, more than 100 residents gathered in the Missouri Capitol rotunda to protest his nomination. They claimed he was not conservative enough. Many wore stickers with Kauerauf's name with a no symbol in front. Others brought signs reading stop Kauerauf mandates and stop communism; Missourians want medical freedom.

Senator Mike Moon spoke on the Senate floor for hours against the nomination, saying he heard from more than 1,000 Missourians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE MOON: Now, I admit, some of the statements made by some of these folks were off base. I don't think they were all off base, and that's why I asked many of the questions that I asked.

KELLOGG: With dissent over the nomination and a desire to adjourn before a snowstorm hit the Capitol, the Senate agreed to not take action on Kauerauf's appointment. Only one day after testifying for a job he already held for more than four months, Kauerauf resigned. Governor Parson was quick to blast the Senate's actions. In a statement, he called the events surrounding Kauerauf's appointment, quote, "nothing short of disgraceful, unquestionably wrong and an embarrassment to the state and the people we serve."

Don Kauerauf is another example of a public health figure who has faced vitriol from both lawmakers and the public during the pandemic. Lawrence Gostin teaches global health law at Georgetown University. He says what happened in Missouri has been playing out all across the country.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: I've seen public health professionals picketed, threatened, their families threatened and literally hounded out of office. And while we've got tens of thousands of people who should be in public health and aren't, more are leaving every day.

KELLOGG: Since the pandemic began, legislators in a number of states have limited the powers of health officials. Gostin says those actions have consequences that will last after the pandemic.

GOSTIN: The COVID pandemic should have made it - public health - empowered, more flexible, more nimble, more resources. And instead, it's been the opposite.

KELLOGG: For his part, Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden hopes the process for approving the next nominee for Missouri's health director won't get tangled up again in COVID politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CALEB ROWDEN: I just think we have to be mindful about saying, you - we are going to only advise and consent to people who look and sound and agree with everything I have to say or we're not going to go down that road. That's a dangerous slope.

KELLOGG: For now, Missouri has another interim health director in the middle of a pandemic. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Kellogg in Jefferson City, Mo.

(SOUNDBITE OF DELICATE STEVE'S "LA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Kellogg