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Missouri health director who worked for 2 governors resigns

Missouri’s health director resigned Tuesday amid the state’s coronavirus vaccine rollout, Republican Gov. Mike Parson announced.

Parson did not provide an explanation for Department of Health and Senior Services Director Dr. Randall Williams’ departure. Parson named his deputy chief of staff, Robert Knodell, to be the agency’s acting director.

Parson’s spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request by The Associated Press for Williams’ resignation letter Tuesday.

“Dr. Williams has been a huge asset to Missouri, especially this past year in dealing with COVID-19,” Parson said in a statement. “We greatly appreciate all the work he has done for the people of our state and wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

Williams was appointed to the job in 2017 by Parson’s predecessor, former GOP Gov. Eric Greitens.

Greitens resigned in 2018 amid multiple scandals and in the face of impeachment, elevating Parson, who was then the state’s lieutenant governor.

It’s not unusual for governors to change department heads when they begin a new term. But many department heads picked by Greitens remained in their positions when Parson took over as governor.

Williams ended his tenure after taking on the unprecedented job of spearheading Missouri’s health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He repeatedly urged Missourians to wear masks, social distance and frequently wash or sanitize their hands to help slow the virus’ spread. He also backed Parson’s decision not to require face masks throughout the state.

Williams faced numerous controversies as health director, perhaps most notably during a fight over Planned Parenthood’s abortion license.

Williams said he tracked the menstrual cycles of Planned Parenthood patients as part of an effort to identify what the agency says were “failed abortions” at a St. Louis clinic during a 2019 administrative hearing.

House Democratic Minority Leader Crystal Quade in a statement criticized the tracking of menstrual cycles, the state’s “failed response to COVID-19” and the health department’s rollout of medical marijuana under William’s leadership.

“Through it all he somehow managed to keep his job,” Quade said. “With his sudden and unexplained resignation, one can’t help but wonder what finally convinced the governor to show him the door.”

Parson said Knodell has also been leading the state’s COVID-19 response. But Knodell doesn’t have a medical background as Williams does.

St. Louis Rep. LaDonna Appelbaum, the top Democrat on the House’s health committee, called Knodell’s appointment “troubling.”

“Knodell has no background in public health, and as the ‘czar’ of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, he shoulders much of the blame for the state’s early failures to provide vaccines to urban and suburban areas,” she said in a statement.

Missouri has a history of non-medical professionals leading the state health department.

Like Parson, former Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon named one of his top staffers — deputy chief of staff Peter Lyskowski — to serve as acting health director in 2015 when Gail Vasterling stepped down from the position.

Both Lyskowski and Vasterling were lawyers who previously worked for Nixon in the attorney general’s office. Vasterling had been appointed as acting health director in 2012 following the resignation of Nixon’s first health director, Margaret Donnelly, an attorney and former Democratic state House member who had run unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2008.

Former Republican Gov. Matt Blunt also named a top lawyer in his office — general counsel Jane Drummond — to take over as health director following the resignation of his first appointee, Julie Eckstein, in 2006.

Before becoming health director in 2005, Eckstein had been owner of a business that provided online information about community events and had previously led a coalition that sponsored local health care initiatives.

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