As COVID-19 and the delta variant surge in Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson has named a new state health department director and announced $9 million in vaccine incentive programs.
Donald Kauerauf, a longtime Illinois public servant, will take on the role of Department of Health and Senior Services director Sept. 1. When he takes office, Kauerauf will have a hand in the state's new vaccine incentive programs, which will give 900 vaccinated Missourians $10,000 each.
Gov. Mike Parson made the announcements during a press conference Wednesday at the state Capitol.
Kauerauf has been serving as chairman of the Illinois Terrorism Task Force, where he is also a deputy to the Illinois governor's homeland security adviser and policy adviser to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency director, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before chairing the task force, Kauerauf was the assistant director of the Illinois Department of Public Health from 2016 until he retired in 2018. He has more than 30 years of total experience in public health and emergency management.
"I am anxious to start the job, I'm anxious to work with all of you, and I'm so happy to be a part of this team that will be a success as we move forward," Kauerauf said.
Parson said Kauerauf has a deep understanding of public health issues and the COVID-19 pandemic.
"From his extensive resume and core values, we know that Don is the right choice to lead Missouri's top public health agency, and we are confident in his ability to serve all Missourians with respect to the level of leadership that they demand, especially as we face the final hurdles of COVID-19 and address future public health issues," Parson said.
As DHSS director, Kauerauf is tasked with leading the state's efforts to protect the health and well-being of Missouri residents.
Kauerauf said he expects a seamless transition, starting with plans to travel the state to meet with local health authorities, health care providers and businesses to form better relations with the state government.
He said like most states, Missouri needs to improve its vaccination rate and get back to the local level when addressing public health issues.
"I think Missouri has followed the CDC playbook, and my job is to come in here and is to build upon that to see what are the things we can do to help them increase the preparedness and the ability for Missouri to respond to COVID," Kauerauf said.
He said preventative care is a personal pet project and he wants to take a holistic look at the public health system to be more collaborative among local health authorities.
Acting DHSS Director Robert Knodell will continue to serve in his role until Kauerauf begins in September.
Knodell, previously Parson's deputy chief of staff since 2018, was named acting director of DHSS April 20 after previous director Randall Williams resigned that day for unknown reasons.
The announcement comes as COVID-19 cases are surging in Missouri, and the Delta variant continues to spread among the unvaccinated.
On Wednesday, the state reported its highest COVID-19 case totals since January. DHSS reported the state had 549,191 COVID-19 cases with 9,728 cases in the last seven days and a daily average of 1,390 cases.
In Cole County, there have been a total of 9,861 cases, with 269 reported in the past week and a daily average of 38 cases, according to the DHSS dashboard Wednesday.
Also as of Wednesday, 40.4 percent of Missourians were completely vaccinated, and 46.5 percent had initiated the process with a first dose. In Cole County, 38.4 percent of residents have a complete vaccine and 43.2 percent have a single dose, according to the DHSS vaccine dashboard.
As a result, Parson has announced a statewide vaccine incentive program, called MO VIP, that will award $10,000 prizes to 900 vaccinated Missourians. The winners will be chosen in a lottery, starting Aug. 13.
Anyone age 12 and older with at least a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine is eligible to enter the lottery at MOStopsCovid.com/win. Drawings will be conducted by the Missouri Lottery every two weeks for the roughly three months between Aug. 13 and Oct. 8.
In an effort to make the lottery more fair, participants are divided into three categories: Missourians age 18 or older vaccinated after July 21 are in the red category, while those vaccinated before July 21 are in the white category and Missourians ages 12-17 vaccinated at any time are in the blue category.
Eighty winners will be drawn from each of the red and white categories every two weeks, and 20 winners will be drawn from the blue category every two weeks. Adolescents will be awarded a $10,000 education savings account instead of the cash prize.
"What we're looking for is a sweet spot that gets as many people prizes or opportunities to be successful in those drawings in as many communities as possible, as opposed to perhaps one winner or very few winners in the state," Knodell said.
The state is also allowing local health agencies that provide COVID-19 vaccines the ability to provide $25 incentives to each person who gets the vaccine, capped at a total of $11 million and expiring at the end of the year.
Vaccinators should apply to receive the funds at MOStopsCovid.com/vaccinators by Aug. 15.
Knodell said health agencies should submit a plan for how they will conduct the $25 per vaccine recipient incentive and the state will approve it to ensure it stays within CDC guidelines and expectations.
Parson said he hopes the two programs will work together to encourage more Missourians to explore vaccination opportunities, particularly those on the fence about getting the shot.
Funding for the incentive programs comes from a combination of state funds, federal coronavirus relief funds, CDC Immunizations Grant funding.
Parson said there are currently no goal metrics or vaccination numbers he wants to reach with the incentive programs, but it is another tool the state will use to encourage vaccinations.
After initially being hesitant about the idea of incentives, Parson has said his office and DHSS have been working on a plan for the last few weeks.
"Everybody knew in this state, back in January and February, there was going to be hesitancy among some to take this vaccine, and we know probably about 45 percent of the general public has not had that yet. So we've got to encourage them to do it," Parson said last week. "But we've also got to respect the people that don't want it and respect their right not to do it, so I think when you think of all those things there's a lot of things in there. So the incentive process, if it works, great If it moves the needle, I'm all for it."
Last week, Missouri sent a vaccine incentive plan to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but it was rejected because CDC Immunizations Grant guidance limits awards to individuals to $25.
Knodell sent a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on July 16 asking her to reconsider the rejection of Missouri's incentive plan as the $25 cap "does not adequately provide a realistic opportunity for incentivizing unvaccinated Missourians to move beyond their current vaccine hesitancies."
Several states have rolled out vaccine incentive programs amid the pandemic, including Illinois, Arkansas and Indiana. Incentives have varied by state, ranging from lottery chances, to free hunting and fishing licenses, to free Six Flags tickets.