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Longtime Missouri health department administrator Paula Nickelson named acting director

 Acting Director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Paula Nickelson speaks to the press on March 3, 2022. As acting director, Nickelson is not subject to Senate approval.
Sarah Kellogg
St. Louis Public Radio
Acting Director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Paula Nickelson speaks to the press on March 3, 2022. As acting director, Nickelson is not subject to Senate approval.

Updated at 4:27 p.m. with comments from Sen. Mike Moon

The new acting head of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has more than 20 years' experience with the agency.

Gov. Mike Parson announced Tuesday the appointment of Paula Nickelson to serve as acting director, meaning her position, for now, is not subject to approval by the Missouri Senate. Nickelson could serve the remainder of Parson’s term as acting director.

In his introductory comments, Parson spoke about Missouri’s next steps in public health, which include learning to live with COVID-19 while also focusing on other topics.

“It is important to remember that DHSS is responsible for more than pandemic response, and Paula has vast department knowledge that will be invaluable as she takes the helm,” Parson said.

Nickelson is a Missouri native and has served in DHSS for over 22 years. Some of her work within the department includes leading program areas including chronic disease prevention and emergency preparedness and response. Nickelson was also involved in some of the state’s COVID-19 response efforts. She earned a Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of Central Missouri and a Master of Education in counseling psychology at the University of Missouri.

She took over as deputy director on Feb. 1. On how the state should continue to respond to the pandemic, she spoke of a “layering approach” with mitigation, including masks, vaccines and social distancing.

“All are useful and should be available to each of us as we make personal choices about how best to safeguard our own health, and the health of our family members, and consultation with our personal physician,” Nickelson said.

Nickelson said the department will be open with the information it has.

“I will personally attest to you that we give you the very best information we have at any given time. It may change, but we're going to continue to give the very best information we can at any time,” Nickelson said.

Nickelson’s appointment comes after former acting Director Don Kauerauf failed to garner the needed support in the Senate to make his position permanent. Kauerauf faced strong criticism from conservatives, despite being against mandates for both masks and vaccines.

In a statement issued after the decision to not advance Kauerauf’s appointment, Parson criticized the Senate, calling the events surrounding his appointment “nothing short of disgraceful, unquestionably wrong, and an embarrassment to this state and the people we serve.”

Speaking Tuesday on his decision to make Nickelson acting director, Parson said he wanted stability for the department.

“We weren't expecting what happened in the Senate with Don when he went up there, but it did. So, we had to react to that and really just try to figure out how do we make sure that [the] health department is still stable,” Parson said.

Despite the title, Parson said he sees Nickelson as director. She will be able to operate as such without any limitations on the job's usual powers, and there aren’t current plans to seek Senate confirmation. Parson said that could change, but that the move to make Nickelson acting director was not to avoid a confirmation vote.

“We may put her up there and get that confirmation. Months down the road or next year, we'll take a look. But right now, I think we just need the stability of a director to the department of health,” Parson said.

Parson said he has not been in communication with the Senate regarding the appointment.

“I'm not sure it's necessary for the governor to go out and ask the Senate for their permission for me to appoint a director. I think it's their job to confirm the director. And they have that choice to make, but I don't think the process of who we select for the Cabinet is part of the duties of the Senate,” Parson said.

Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, who serves on the Senate Gubernatorial Appointments Committee and who was a vocal critic of Kauerauf, said he had not heard much about Nickelson yet, but was looking forward to meeting her.

Follow Sarah Kellogg on Twitter: @sarahkkellogg

Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Kellogg is a first year graduate student at the University of Missouri studying public affairs reporting. She spent her undergraduate days as a radio/television major and reported for KBIA. In addition to reporting shifts, Sarah also hosted KBIA’s weekly education show Exam, was an afternoon newscaster and worked on the True/False podcast. Growing up, Sarah listened to episodes of Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me! with her parents during long car rides. It’s safe to say she was destined to end up in public radio.