(Missouri Independent) – State health director Donald Kauerauf adamantly spoke against mandating face masks and COVID-19 vaccines during a hearing Monday, as anti-vaccination demonstrators protested his confirmation in the halls outside.
While protesters chanted outside the Capitol hearing room, senators inside grilled Kauerauf for nearly two hours on his views on how best to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, his past comments about vaccination, and his position on abortion.
“There are people that disagree with vaccinations. I respect that. That is their choice to make that. And I don’t have any problems with that whatsoever,” Kauerauf said. “…I just have to go to bed knowing that we did every attempt we could to provide them with factual information.”
Kauerauf’s hearing was expected to be contentious, and over 100 protesters gathered at the Capitol in opposition to his appointment holding signs that read “God-given natural immunity” and “We’re not guinea pigs.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Mike Parson came out in support of Kauerauf, issuing a statement staunchly defending his choice for state health director as someone who “has respected Missourians’ constitutional rights every step of the way.”
“To set the record straight, Don is strongly pro-life and anti-abortion and against government mandating mask-wearing and COVID-19 vaccinations,” Parson said in a statement. “Those were his views and beliefs when I appointed him, and they remain today.”
At the start of the hearing, Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, and chair of the Senate Gubernatorial Appointments Committee said there would be no vote taken on appointees following Monday’s hearing.
The committee has a meeting in which it could vote on appointees scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday and a hearing on additional appointees scheduled Wednesday. Schatz said the committee schedule may depend on the snowstorm expected later this week.
Under the Missouri Constitution, department directors that are appointed when the legislature isn’t in session must be confirmed within 30 days of the Senate convening. That sets a deadline for Kauerauf to be confirmed by the end of the week.
If he wins committee approval, Kauerauf would still face a vote before the full Senate in order to be confirmed.
If he fails to secure Senate confirmation, then the Constitution bars Kauerauf from being appointed to the DHSS director position again.
Kauerauf’s hearing has already faced delays. A hearing last week where Kauerauf was originally scheduled to be heard was canceled nearly four afters after it was scheduled to begin due to conservative senators holding the Senate floor to air their grievances on a proposed Congressional map.
‘We’re against mandates’
Kauerauf assumed office in September of last year after he was appointed by Parson to replace former DHSS Director Randall Williams, who was asked to resign suddenly and with little explanation.
Kauerauf, who came to Missouri following a career in emergency management and public health in Illinois, has been vocal that “masks work.” In early November, his department, at the request of Parson’s office, analyzed data that found mask mandates were effective in reducing case rates and COVID deaths.
The findings weren’t made public until an open records request by The Independent and the Documenting COVID-19 project. Parson has never implemented a statewide mask mandate during the pandemic.
Kauerauf’s views on mandates were the first questions he fielded Monday from Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville.
“My position’s clear,” Kauerauf said, “is that we’re against mandates.”
Throughout the hearing, Kauerauf stressed a mantra of personal choice, whether it was on masks, vaccines or the use of the drug ivermectin to treat COVID.
“If that is something someone believes is needed for them, that’s a discussion they should have with their doctor to go through it,” Kauerauf said of the use of ivermectin to treat COVID-19.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved ivermectin to treat COVID-19, and it’s typically used to treat parasitic worms in animals. Before Kauerauf assumed his role, DHSS urged Missourians not to self-medicate with the drug.
Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, peppered Kauerauf with a majority of the questions Monday, even delving into Kauerauf’s wife’s work at the Illinois state health department and whether Kauerauf is connected to a testing program in Illinois — topics that became testy at times, as Kauerauf reminded Moon is wife was not there at the hearing.
Senators also delved into Kauerauf’s views on abortion. The state health department oversees licensing and inspections of abortion providers.
When asked, Kauerauf said life begins at conception, but declined to answer what role the state should play in regulating abortion.
“I’m pro-life,” Kauerauf said, “but I’m also pro-public health in making sure that those kids when they grow up, they have the greatest chance of success and live the longest, most healthiest lives possible.”
Kauerauf has also faced criticism from conservative state senators over his comments on a law passed last year that limited the authority of public health officials to issue mitigation orders. Asked if the new law was exacerbating the delta variant’s spread, Kauerauf previously said “this is one that haunts me.”
Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, raised that statement Monday, writing on Twitter that, “when an appointee to an important department says that an important legislative achievement of the last session ‘haunts him,’ I think he needs to answer what he means by that.”
Kauerauf’s actions have also at times led to clashes with other state officials.
Last year, Kauerauf requested Schmitt appeal a consequential ruling issued by a Cole County judge that invalidated certain state rules that allowed for health officials to issue orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
Schmitt, who was representing DHSS in the lawsuit, declined to appeal and has waged a crusade to ensure its enforcement.
The ruling has led to widespread confusion for public health departments who said they’re received little guidance from the state, and it has hindered some health departments’ responses to infectious diseases other than COVID-19.
Kauerauf said the initial request to appeal stemmed from the ambiguity of the ruling, and that after meeting with the attorney general’s office, “we understand the extent of the ruling now much better than we did.”
Based on the court’s ruling, Kauerauf said, “the ability for local public health agencies to issue discretionary orders is no longer part of their ability.” He added it would have to be a specific order that receives approval of the department’s governing body.
“It’s pretty clear now,” he said.
Opposition to appointment
Kauerauf has faced opposition from GOP and anti-vaccine mandate corners of the state.
Jennifer Barker, with the advocacy group Informed Health Choice Missouri, raised issues during a rally Monday with Kauerauf’s request to Schmitt to appeal the Cole County ruling. Informed Health Choice Missouri has decried what it views as a “forced vaccination policy” that would be necessary to achieve a higher COVID vaccination rate.
Kauerauf acknowledged Monday that reaching a 100% vaccination rate of those who are willing and eligible would be reaching “the end zone,” but that ultimately he hopes to see Missouri reach a COVID vaccination rate of 75%.
As of Monday, 57.8% of Missourians five years and older have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
Members of the Conservative Caucus, like Republican Sens. Denny Hoskins of Warrensburg, Rick Brattin of Harrisonville, and Moon spoke at the anti-Kauerauf rally Monday.
Moon, who is running for U.S. Congress, said a department director “should not have tyrannical powers,” and Hoskins said amid the pandemic, some local health departments have acted like “a dictatorship” and don’t listen to residents’ voices.
In his statement, Parson directed any concerns to his office.
“It’s concerning to see certain Missouri officials grandstanding for purely political reasons and fueling fears without any regard for the truth,” Parson said. “I implore Missouri Senators to assess the qualities of the person, not let themselves fall victim to misinformation repeated on social media.”
Senators on the committee said their emails and phones have “blown up” with calls and emails regarding Kauerauf. The Jackson County Republican Committee also opposes Kauerauf’s appointment, The Kansas City Star reported.
Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, told reporters last week that concerns he’s heard were less about the state having a higher COVID vaccination rate and more about the means to achieve that.
“I would assume a desire for a health guy to get more folks vaccinated is probably not the most offensive part of what some folks have an issue with,” Rowden said.
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said he thinks Kauerauf has become a symbol for things he believes the Republican Party recoils from, like masks and vaccines.
“In my opinion, he believes in science,” Rizzo said. “And I think he’s done a decent job so far. Quite honestly, it’s surprising that he’s there, but I’m glad he is. And I hope he sticks around.”
(Photo courtesy of Missouri Governor’s Office)