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As Missouri continues to top nation in COVID-19, search for state health director is slow going

As Missouri continues to top nation in COVID-19, search for state health director is slow going

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Gov. Mike Parson visits vaccination clinics in St. Louis metropolitan area

Gov. Mike Parson takes questions for the media after touring the vaccination clinic on March 4, hosted by BJC HealthCare at Christian Hospital Northeast.

Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — As Missouri tops the nation with the most COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, Gov. Mike Parson’s office says his search for a new public health chief could last another month.

The delay in hiring a point person to manage the state’s response to the newest surge in cases comes after Parson said he hoped to have a new director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in place by mid-June.

Now, when the vaccination rate in Missouri is stuck at 38%, the hiring could be on hold until next month, said spokeswoman Kelli Jones.

“The Governor’s Office is getting closer to announcing a new DHSS director, potentially in the next 30 days,” Jones told the Post-Dispatch Monday.

The search for a new health czar began in April after Parson asked for the resignation of former Director Randall Williams, who had been in the post since 2017.

The vacancy is among more than four top administrative jobs open in the Republican governor’s administration, including the heads of the Department of Social Services, the Department of Natural Resources and the state’s Medicaid program, known as Mo HealthNet.

Just a week ago, Parson sounded like a resolution to the vacant health department job would be coming sooner.

“It’s getting closer every day. I think there’s a candidate I probably will be meeting with personally. It’s a position we want to get filled as soon as we can,” he told reporters in his office.

New coronavirus cases have plummeted since vaccinations became widely available, but in Missouri, cases have spiked 55% over the past 14 days, according to data from The New York Times.

The department, currently headed by acting Director Robert Knodell, issued a news release last week saying the dangerous Delta variant has become prevalent throughout the state.

Missouri had 11 new COVID cases per 100,000 residents in the past seven days, a notch above Wyoming and Utah and far ahead of the national average of three, according to The Times.

The state had double the hospitalization rate, 12 per 100,000 residents, as the national average in the past week. Only the District of Columbia fared worse, at 13.

Other vacancies

Williams’ departure in April came the same day Parson’s former chief operating officer submitted his resignation.

Like Williams, Drew Erdmann had been brought in by former Gov. Eric Greitens, who left office under the cloud of a sex and fundraising scandal in 2018.

Although Erdmann was a key player in the state’s pandemic response, Parson is unlikely to fill that post.

“At this time, the Governor’s Office is not actively seeking to fill the chief operating officer position as current Governor’s Office and executive branch staff have successfully absorbed those duties,” Jones said.

Jones said filling the Department of Social Services top position is a priority.

Meanwhile, acting DSS Director Jennifer Tidball “will continue in her current role as she has experience and capabilities to effectively run the day-to-day operations of DSS and continue to provide essential services to some of our state’s most vulnerable citizens.”

Parson also is launching a search for a new director of the Department of Natural Resources after Director Carol Comer died this month.

The cause of Comer’s death was not released. She announced in July 2019 that she had undergone two unsuccessful surgeries and was beginning chemotherapy to fight cancer.

Comer, an environmental lawyer, was named director of the department in January 2017 by former Gov. Eric Greitens. Before her appointment, she had been commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

“We will begin considering candidates for the role of DNR director in the near future. At this time, Dru Buntin is the Acting Director for DNR,” Jones said.

Jones did not respond to questions about the leave of absence being taken by Mo HealthNet Director Todd Richardson, who left the job in February.

Richardson, like Williams and Erdmann, also was considered a top resource for Parson in fighting the pandemic.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to correct the time span for the 55% increase in cases in the state.

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