JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Protesters on Monday pushed Missouri senators to vote down Republican Gov. Mike Parson's new state health director over concerns that he's overstepping in his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, despite his repeated assurances that he opposes mandates.
At least 100 critics met in the state Capitol to rally against Department of Health and Senior Services Director Don Kauerauf.
Kauerauf took over as the state's health czar in September after his predecessor, Randall Williams, left the job in April 2021 without publicly citing a reason.
His appointment is subject to state Senate confirmation. If senators don't approve Kauerauf's nomination this week, he'll be blocked from serving as health director.
Like Parson, Kauerauf has repeatedly stated that he doesn't support government mask or vaccine mandates to reduce the spread of coronavirus. He told senators that the decision about whether to get vaccinated should be made between a patient and their doctor and that he respects individuals' decisions on vaccination.
“I’m against mandates,” Kauerauf said. “They don’t work, and you shouldn’t recommend them.”
But Kauerauf has also said Missouri's vaccination rate is “atrocious” and that he wants more people to get the vaccine. Close to 59% of eligible Missourians, meaning children age 5 and older, are fully vaccinated, according to state health department data.
Kauerauf told senators he'd like to see a vaccination rate of closer to 75% for those who are eligible.
Republican Sen. Mike Moon said Kauerauf’s use of the term “reeducate” in describing efforts to inform people about coronavirus vaccines, his push to increase vaccinations and his disappointment that some Missourians have chosen not to get COVID-19 vaccines were concerning to him.
Deborah Wiersma, of Pacific, Missouri, wore a red hat supporting former President Donald Trump to protest outside the Senate committee hearing. She said even though Parson and Kauerauf don't support mandates, she's concerned that they're still encouraging masking, testing, social distancing and vaccinations.
“I'm against all of it,” she said.
Other protesters carried signs describing Kauerauf as a tyrant and chanted loudly against him whenever the committee room door opened.
In an unusual move for a Missouri governor, Parson on Monday publicly defended Kauerauf.
“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.”
Moon lauded Kauerauf for reiterating his opposition to mandates after the hearing ended. But Moon said he now questions how anti-abortion Kauerauf is.
The state health department is responsible for inspecting abortion clinics, and the agency has the ability to limit access to abortions through restrictive regulations.
Kauerauf told senators Monday that he's pro-life and believes life begins at conception.
The Senate Gubernatorial Appointments Committee is scheduled to vote on Parson's nominations Tuesday.