In a bid to increase vaccination rates to combat the Delta variant’s growing spread, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced Wednesday an incentive program that will feature chances to win $10,000 for those who get a shot.
Parson was also joined Wednesday by Donald Kauerauf, a former assistant director in the Illinois Department of Public Health, who will serve as the new director of the Department of Health and Senior Services. The announcement comes just over three months since Randall Williams, the former DHSS director, resigned suddenly with little explanation.
The unveiling of an incentive program to persuade Missourians to get vaccinated has been anticipated for weeks, as state officials have worked to finalize details and pin down funding sources.
Parson himself had previously been hesitant to adopt incentives, questioning last month whether they would set a precedent to reward vaccinations. However, he has since turned to them as the state continues to see some of the highest numbers of new cases per capita, and has expressed his support for smaller-scale lottery prizes.
Missouri’s incentive program is dubbed “MO VIP” and will be operated by the Missouri Lottery. Entries will be divided by Missouri’s eight Congressional districts. There will be separate drawings for those already vaccinated, those who have yet to be and receive a dose after July 21 and for minors who can win a $10,000 MOST 529 savings plan, an investment account that can be used to pay college tuition, among other educational expenses.
Each drawing, there will be 180 winners — with eighty adults selected each for the category of those vaccinated before July 21 and those newly vaccinated after that date, and 20 youth between the ages of 12-17. In total, there will be 900 winners after the drawings are complete.
The first drawing will be on Aug. 13. Drawings will occur every two weeks with the fifth and final drawing scheduled for Oct. 8.
Winners will be responsible for paying all state and federal taxes on the original $10,000 prize. If residents who win owe money to state entities, like the state public defender, the amount they owe will be deducted from the winnings. If the amount exceeds $10,000, they will receive no prize money, per a FAQ section on the program.
A schedule and additional details on eligibility can be found at MOStopsCovid.com/win.
Parson reiterated the state would not be mandating vaccines. But he urged Missourians to cast aside “the doom and gloom scenarios that are out there across our state, all the misinformation” and turn to trusted community leaders, like residents’ doctors and clergy members, to seek out advice on getting a vaccine in order to make their own judgment calls.
“I’m depending on you and your families to make the right choices,” Parson said.
Parson said he did not have a specific figure that would mark the incentive program as a success, but stressed its outcomes will be analyzed. Acting DHSS Director Robert Knodell said in crafting the program, the state hoped to achieve a “sweet spot” to give as many people prizes as possible throughout the state, opposed to only a few winners statewide.
The incentive program’s launch previously hit a snag when it came to funding, with Missouri urging the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention on Friday to make an exception and waive a $25 per person limit for incentives paid for by federal funding to boost immunizations.
The state will instead cover the costs of Missouri’s incentive program through a combination of state funds and unspent federal coronavirus relief funds, which the U.S. Treasury Department recently clarified can be used for cash payments and lotteries, “so long as such costs are reasonably proportional to the expected public health benefit.” In total roughly $9 million will be spent, Knodell said.
Supplemental grant funding to boost immunizations will instead be made available to local public health departments to craft county-level incentive programs of their own. Local incentive programs will be approved by the state, and up to $11 million will be issued and able to be used through the end of the year.
Kauerauf comes from Illinois, where he has spent three decades serving in primarily state government roles related to emergency response and public health.
Kauerauf most recently served as the chair of the Illinois Terrorism Task Force within the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, where he had previously also served as the chief of the Bureau of Preparedness and Grants Administration.
Kauerauf said he believes his background in emergency management helps him be effective at weighing all the options to make quick decisions to protect public health.
Kauerauf also served as the assistant director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, a position he had been appointed to in July 2016 by former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and held until his retirement in 2018. Kauerauf had worked in the department for a decade prior to that from 1994 to 2004, where he served in various roles, including chief of the department’s division of disaster planning and readiness, according to a news article at the time.
He also oversaw “Safe2Help Illinois,” a school safety program that aimed to collect tips in an effort to prevent suicide, bullying and school violence, and worked as an emergency management intelligence officer at Western Illinois University in the Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center, according to a previous bio.
Kauerauf does not have a medical degree. Williams, who was an obstetrician and gynecologist, was the first department director in recent years to have a medical background.
One of his goals as the new department director will be to travel the state and meet healthcare providers, public health departments and businesses, Kauerauf said. Asked on how to best improve Missouri’s health outcomes, Kauerauf stressed the need for accessible preventative care and building on collaboration between health departments.
“We need to take a holistic look at the public health system,” Kauerauf said. “That was going to be my plan on day one.”
Kauerauf replaces Knodell, Parson’s deputy chief of staff, who has served as the acting director of DHSS since Williams’ resignation.
The search extended longer than Parson had first hoped, as he previously anticipated a new director would be finalized within 60 days.
Williams, who had been the highest-profile member of Parson’s cabinet, faced a tumultuous four years in the role and had often been embroiled in controversy. Parson’s office has refused to release Williams’ resignation letter, and the Attorney General’s Office has declined to take action, arguing the governor’s office is “a client.”
Amid the pandemic, Williams and Parson left decisions on mitigation measures largely in the hands of local officials and faced outrage from residents and lawmakers over equitable distribution early on in the state’s vaccine rollout.
Kauerauf, who is scheduled to assume his new role on Sept. 1, will inherit a summer surge of COVID cases and hospitalizations that has been fueled by the Delta variant and low vaccination rates throughout the state. State health officials have anticipated weeks of rising cases, with healthcare providers and local officials in hard-hit Springfield warning “the surge is coming.”
On Wednesday, the state reported 2,995 additional COVID cases — the highest total since mid-January. Health officials in Springfield continue to struggle with record inpatient numbers, and have requested the state provide funding for an alternative care site to free up hospital beds for those most severely ill.
Asked if there’s anything he would have done differently in Missouri’s pandemic response, Kauerauf said there was nothing.
“Missouri has done a great job following CDC guidance,” he said. “This all comes back to, people need to get vaccinated.”
Meanwhile, vaccinations have slightly increased across the state, most notably in Southwest Missouri. According to a June 19 analysis by Deloitte, a consulting firm hired by the state to aid its pandemic response, vaccine initiations for adults increased by approximately 3,000 last week — the highest number of weekly vaccine initiations since late May. As of Wednesday, 50 percent of Missouri’s adult population has completed vaccination, according to state data.
But rates still remain stubbornly low, with the state’s seven-day average of vaccines administered hovering around 10,000, according to state data. Missouri has the 13th lowest number of doses administered per capita in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.