Republican Gov. Mike Parson is expected to name a new leader of Missouri’s public health agency as the state is battling its latest wave of COVID-19 cases.
A long-term director for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is scheduled to be announced Wednesday during a press event, according to the governor’s office. The leadership post has been temporarily filled by a Parson administration official following the former director’s forced resignation in April.
The governor has said he plans to use the opportunity of appointing a new director, along with an influx of federal funding, to remake the health department. He has not provided details on the changes.
“I think you’ll see that whole department, that whole agency be rebuilt,” Parson said in April.
The health department is the state’s front line for tracking COVID-19 cases and rolling out its vaccination program. It has been led by Robert Knodell, Parson’s deputy chief of staff, for the past 14 weeks. Knodell does not have a medical background.
The announcement of new leadership comes as public health officials have grown more and more concerned about virus hot spots in Missouri driven by COVID-19’s highly contagious delta variant. The variant has become the predominant strain of new cases in the state.
And COVID-19 cases are now rising in other parts of the state, including in the Kansas City metro, leading health officials to fear that the crisis in the southwest may soon spread. In St. Louis, cases rose 40% over the span of a week and seven people died within that time frame.
Statewide, the average number of confirmed new cases each day has risen from 473 a month ago to 1,279 this weekend, according to Missouri’s health department. One month ago, 761 people were hospitalized with COVID-19; on Sunday it was 1,436.
At the same time, Missouri has fully vaccinated just 40% of its population, according to data compiled by The New York Times. Some counties have fully vaccinated less than 20% of all residents.
Randall T. Williams, the former director, resigned at the governor’s request as the state was rolling out its vaccination push in April. Parson’s administration has refused to release Williams’ resignation letter, saying that record is exempt from public disclosure under the Missouri Sunshine Law.
Williams left his post under a series of controversies in which critics suggested he made decisions based on politics rather than public health. Williams and Parson stood by each other in a pandemic response that many health experts believed was too hands-off.
Williams also led the health department when it refused to renew the license of Missouri’s only abortion clinic, a Planned Parenthood in St. Louis, in 2018. In the legal battle that followed, Williams testified that his department, looking for evidence of failed abortions at the clinic, had kept a spreadsheet of patients’ menstrual cycles.
Also to be announced Wednesday is a statewide incentive program aimed at boosting Missouri’s lagging vaccination rates. Parson has spent recent weeks weighing the possibility of establishing such a program. He was initially reluctant but his stance has softened over time.
Details of the incentive plan were not immediately available.