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Gov. Mike Parson announced the launch of an incentive program Wednesday offering prizes of $10,000 to 900 people who have received a vaccine to protect them from the coronavirus.
The long-awaited announcement came on the same day the Republican governor named a new state public health director, filling a post that has been vacant since April after the departure of former health director Randall Williams.
Donald G. Kauerauf, who has served in various capacities within the Illinois Department of Public Health since 1987, will take over as the $147,000 per year director of Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services on Sept. 1.
The incentive program is designed to boost Missouri’s stagnant vaccination rate, which stood about 40 percent Wednesday, putting the state among the bottom tier among states in the nation. In Texas County, the rate is 21.2 percent for those totally vaccinated.
The low rate has caused a surge in Missouri, leaving it third in cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents with 34, a number that is up 114% over the past two weeks, according to a New York Times pandemic database.
Missouri has averaged 12.1 deaths per day over the past 14 days.
Under the program, Missourians who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine can qualify for the prize. The first drawing will be on Aug. 13 and drawings will occur every two weeks with the final drawing scheduled for Oct. 8.
Once a person enters, their entry will be carried over through all the drawings, which will be conducted by the Missouri Lottery. A separate program will offer $25 for those being vaccinated and will be distributed to local health agencies.
To allow time for records and eligibility to be verified, confirmed winners will be announced two weeks following each drawing.
Parson earlier expressed skepticism about giving people prizes for getting vaccinated, but relented as the number of residents in rural areas began lagging at a time when schools are preparing to open.
On Wednesday, he urged people to get vaccinated, but said he would never mandate vaccinations.
“Unvaccinated Missourians are the primary target of this new strain,” he said of the spreading delta variant. “The vaccine has been proven safe and effective against it.”
Parson also blamed social media platforms for spreading “misinformation” about vaccines.
“I ask you to turn off the clutter,” Parson said. “What we need now is good information.”
The new health director, meanwhile, also said people need to find accurate sources of information about vaccinations.
“Don’t look at social media,” Kauerauf said.
Kauerauf replaces Williams, who had started his role in 2017 as an appointee of former Gov. Eric Greitens.
Unlike Williams, Kauerauf is not a doctor. Rather, he began his career at the Illinois Department of Public Health in 1987 after graduating from Illinois State University with a degree in occupational safety and health.
Kauerauf served as the assistant director of the Illinois Department of Public Health from 2016 until his retirement in 2018. More recently, he chaired the Illinois Terrorism Task Force and has served in that capacity throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
“I’m looking forward to working with public health agencies, healthcare providers, and communities to build upon the great work that has been initiated in Missouri to address the current COVID-19 situation. At the same time, I’ll work to make available critical preventative programs and services to increase the health and safety of all Missourians,” he said.
Williams’ tenure was marred by controversy over the muddled rollout of a medical marijuana program and his failed attempt to use his agency’s regulatory power to shut down Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis clinic, which is Missouri’s lone abortion provider.
Parson has been criticized for not issuing a statewide order for people to wear face coverings and for favoring keeping businesses open at a time when the respiratory virus was spreading through the state last year.
But Kauerauf said he wouldn’t have recommended changes in the state’s approach.
“Missouri has done a great job of following (federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance,” he said.
Although Kauerauf begins working Sept. 1, the position requires approval by the Senate. A confirmation hearing and vote in the Senate could come as soon as mid-September.