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Health, Science, Environment

Missouri Health Director Randall Williams Resigns

Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, spoke to reporters after a court hearing on Wednesday, June 5, 2019
Sarah Fentem
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Randall Williams, former director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, speaks to reporters after a court hearing in 2019. Williams resigned Tuesday.

Updated at 4:50 p.m. with reaction from a state lawmaker and a public health expert

Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, has resigned, Gov. Mike Parson announced Tuesday.

Williams, who has led the department since 2017, submitted his letter of resignation in the morning. He could not be reached for comment.

In a statement, Parson credited Williams with helping the state weather the coronavirus pandemic. But the governor gave no reason for the departure of Williams, whose tenure has been marked by controversy.

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

Parson has named his deputy chief of staff, Robert Knodell, as acting director of the state agency. Knodell has led the state’s vaccine distribution effort, which came under fire earlier this year for having among the lowest vaccination rates in the nation.

Throughout the pandemic, Williams supported Parson’s approach to handling the coronavirus, which called on local governments to decide whether to put in place restrictions on gathering sizes and other preventive measures such as mandatory mask orders.

The decision drew fire from local health officials and doctors in St. Louis, who late last year implored the Parson administration to put a statewide mask order in place as hospitals reached capacity.

Under Williams, the Department of Health and Senior Services left local public health departments in the dark when it came to fighting the pandemic, said Larry Jones, executive director of the Missouri Center for Public Health Excellence.

“Too many times decisions got made and at the same time the public was hearing about those decisions, public health at the local health level was hearing about those decisions,“ said Jones, who worked for the department for nearly 30 years. He said local public health officials are familiar with Knodell.

“He has worked with those of us in public health while he was in the governor’s office as we looked at ways to find this pandemic,” Jones said. “He will not be a stranger himself as he comes forward.”

Jones said he hopes the Parson selects someone with public health experience to lead the department.

House Minority Leader Rep. Crystal Quade said she was happy to see Williams go, stating that the former health director had “bungled the implementation of legalized medical marijuana, led the state’s failed response to COVID-19 and routinely refused to answer basic questions from lawmakers.”

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

Williams came under heavy criticism when the state health department denied Planned Parenthood a renewed license to operate as the last abortion provider in the state.

Planned Parenthood sued, and critics accused Williams and others in the Parson administration of foisting their own anti-abortion views on Missouri residents. The case was heard by the state’s Administrative Hearing Commission, which found no evidence of safety issues at the St. Louis clinic.

But state Rep. Mike Stephens, R-Bolivar, said he thinks Williams did a commendable job as state health director, given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic.

Stephens has confidence in Knodell, because of his involvement in the vaccine rollout.

Getting Missourians the COVID-19 vaccine is the department’s biggest priority, so it makes sense for Knodell to take over in an acting capacity," Stephens said. But he doesn’t expect Knodell to be a long-term replacement for Williams.

“He’s a political guy and not a medical guy,” Stephens said of Knodell.

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