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New DHSS director wants politics left out of public health

by Joe Gamm | September 17, 2021 at 5:15 a.m. | Updated September 17, 2021 at 10:03 a.m.
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As Missouri works through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, state officials and media have to collaborate to become "educators" for residents, said Donald Kauerauf, the new director of the Department of Health and Social Services.

Kauerauf said there's no place in public health - especially during a pandemic - for politics and rhetoric.

Gov. Mike Parson announced his selection of Kauerauf in July. Kauerauf began his tenure Sept. 1.

Kauerauf spoke to - and took questions from - media in an online question-and- answer meeting Thursday morning.

Kauerauf is the former assistant director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. He retired from that position, but couldn't stay out of public service, and became chairman of the Illinois Terrorism Task Force (and was tied to Illinois Emergency Management Agency).

In Illinois, he said, administrators realized they needed to quickly get information out to media so they are aware of something before it becomes a story, and on the flip side, media need to be willing to listen and understand it may not be newsworthy yet.

"I desperately want us to get through this COVID, so that we can start tackling the issues that are most important to the citizens of Missouri," Kauerauf said. "And that is their health.

"I want for us to focus on prevention. I want for Missourians to be healthy."

To do that, he said, DHSS and media have to work together to get information out.

Kauerauf concede health indicators show Missouri remains ranked at the bottom of the nation.

"I believe that we have great opportunity here in Missouri. There is no one who is going to outwork me to be able to increase the health of our citizens of Missouri," he said.

Kauerauf said - while the pandemic is the priority - he'd like to get back to promoting prevention, regular screenings, healthy lifestyles and exercise to improve the state's health.

While in Illinois in the early 1990s, public health officials, Kauerauf said, embraced the idea of making emergency response systems more nimble, with the ability to make quick decisions.

"One of the things I learned throughout this process is how important it is to have partnerships," he said. "That's the basis for my emergency management/emergency response background. Before I came is the importance of bringing people together. You have to work collaboratively. It's not one person. It's not one agency."

Public health is not political, Kauerauf said, and never should be. It has to be about science.

It shocks him, he said, public health has been politicized during the past 18 or 19 months.

"That's not what I bring to the table here. It's about following the science," he said. "It's following the rules and making sure we do our best to protect the citizens of Missouri."

Throughout his interview process, Kauerauf said, he made it clear he is not a medical professional.

"My strength is the ability to bring together people to work together," he said. "In Illinois, I brought together local health partners to form various groups to be able to share information."

Public health people are tired, beat, exiting the field at record rates because of the stress and demands of the job, he said.

"We need someone to lead this agency that can restore the hope, the soul, of the public health workforce - not only at the state level, but at the local level, too," he said. "I believe I am uniquely qualified that I can do that."

He'll bring in the world-class medical minds Missouri contains.

He'll try to maximize efforts and increase morale of the public workforce.

"Although I am not an M.D., you can rest assured that I'm going to bring in the best medical minds, so that when we do have decisions that affect public health, it will be a well thought out, coordinated approach," Kauerauf said.

Acknowledging the state has not funded public health very well, Kauerauf said he'll be looking at what options there are for increasing public funding. He said Medicaid expansion may provide opportunities to improve health outcomes through access to care.

Kauerauf fielded a question about his thoughts on Missouri lawmakers passing laws that limit local health authorities.

"This is one that haunts me," he said. "This is one I'm worried about.

"Public health is not politics. It is helping people. The damage that is being done - across not only Missouri but across the country, where there's the opposition to views, the quarreling, the lack of respect and knowledge downright meanness toward each other in the public health field."

COVID-19 will eventually be over, he said. And public health will still have to resolve issues.

"If we've lost that local respect of the system, how are we going to recover from that?" Kauerauf asked. "That's where we're going to need this partnership, this unified voice. Let's set that rhetoric behind. Let's focus on issues of public health and understand that it's about people."

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