JEFFERSON CITY — After four years as Missouri’s health director, Randall Williams announced Tuesday that he is stepping down from the position, effective immediately.
Gov. Mike Parson said he received Williams’s letter of resignation Tuesday morning but did not give a reason for his departure.
Robert Knodell, Parson’s deputy chief of staff, will serve as acting director for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Throughout the pandemic, Knodell has been active in the state’s COVID-19 response and vaccine distribution.
Bert Malone, former Deputy of the Kansas City Health Department, said he worries about having Knodell at the helm, given his lack of experience in public health.
Knodell took a leading role in the state’s initial vaccine rollout, which received heavy criticism from Missouri’s urban centers. Roughly 23% of Missourians had been fully vaccinated as of Tuesday evening, according to the state’s vaccination dashboard.
Rep. LaDonna Appelbaum, D-St. Louis, said in a Tuesday afternoon statement that she finds Knodell’s appointment “troubling” in light of the ongoing pandemic.
“As the ‘czar’ of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, (Knodell) shoulders much of the blame for the state’s early failures to provide vaccines to urban and suburban areas,” Appelbaum said.
Appelbaum called for a health department director “with experience in public health who will use the authority of the office to help the people of this state, instead of boosting his political profile.”
“A good soldier”
Williams’ tenure has been tinged with controversy, from planning to track the menstrual cycles of Missourians to the department’s heavily criticized management of legalized medical marijuana implementation. The most recent critiques have come as Williams has been the face of the state’s COVID-19 response.
Throughout the pandemic, Williams encouraged Missourians to maintain social distance and wear masks. He also backed the governor’s position on personal responsibility and decision not to implement a statewide mask mandate despite public health experts insisting that masks were necessary to slow the spread of the virus.
It is unlikely that Williams’ departure will result in a different public health strategy from the state. Malone said he thought the physician was a “good soldier” in Parson’s administration.
“I don’t think Dr. Williams had much influence on the direction the governor’s office was taking,” Malone said.
A long-requested departure
Democrats said Williams’ resignation was overdue, according to a Tuesday statement from House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield.
“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.”
Yamelsie Rodríguez said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon that Planned Parenthood has “vehemently called for” Williams’ resignation for two years. Rodríguez is the president and CEO of Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region.
Rodríguez cited Williams’ tracking of patients’ menstrual cycles among issues with his tenure.
“We’re disappointed it took this long, but we feel vindicated for every Missourian whose life was made harder because of Williams’ failure as a public health leader,” Rodríguez said.
The announcement came as a shock to some.
Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, said he did not know Williams’ resignation was coming.
“I think he was in a tough position, like many officials that are dealing with the coronavirus and with the ever-changing aspects of that,” Basye said.
Basye added, “I don’t know why he left or chose to leave, but I wish him the very best.”.