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The man with the plan: Robert Knodell leads coronavirus vaccine rollout

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The distribution of a vaccine to millions of Missourians is a daunting task requiring a “whole of government” response. In order to coordinate those agencies and ensure everyone is following the plan, the Governor’s Office needed someone it trusts to lead one of the most important efforts the state government has undertaken in decades. 

Tucked away on the second floor of the Capitol building, in an office decorated with sports memorabilia and pictures of his 7-year-old daughter, is Robert Knodell. He serves as the governor’s deputy chief of staff and is responsible for coordinating across multiple state government agencies to get millions of Missourians inoculated against COVID-19

Born in southeast Missouri to a school superintendent and a guidance counselor, Knodell remembers his parents being civically engaged from the time he was young. Following in their footsteps, he had his first paid job on conservative Democrat Louie Snider’s state Senate race in 1992 — before Knodell was old enough to have a driver’s license. 

“That was a time before 24/7 cable news and social media and the internet,” Knodell said of the early 1990s, when he and his parents were active in local politics. “Really, the places where political information was interchanged was either the local newspaper, the coffee shops, and the dinner tables of those who were passionate about it.”

After graduating from Southeast Missouri State with an accounting degree, he spent some time auditing in the private sector before jumping on an opportunity to work as a staffer for the Legislative Oversight Committee in the Missouri State House of Representatives in 2003. From there, he worked a number of jobs for the Majority Caucus, both inside the building and on the campaign trail. These early years in the House were when a friendship and professional relationship began with Gov. Mike Parson, then a state representative in 2005. 

As Parson’s political career advanced, so did Knodell’s. He was working as the executive director of the House Republican Campaign Committee when the now-governor approached him and asked him to serve as his deputy chief of staff.

“We worked together, built a good relationship, maintained a friendship, and on occasion, a working relationship on the campaign side,” Knodell said. “That relationship resulted in him extending an opportunity for me.”

Before coordinating the state’s vaccine distribution became his primary focus, he spent his time trying to drive the governor’s policy agenda, reform government, and engage in the administration’s priorities throughout the state. 

But then COVID-19 came to Missouri. 

“There are always going to be reactive events — events that cause the office to really focus in on having to respond to certain circumstances,” Knodell said. “But obviously this has been a statewide, nationwide, worldwide challenge that governments at all levels have been responding to. It has been a tremendous focus of this office since early last year.”

Knodell’s engagement with the pandemic response began once the state transitioned from planning to the activation phase of the vaccine rollout. Now, he works with multiple state agencies to support the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) as it tries to get the vaccine into the arms of Missourians.

The state recently activated Phase 1B Tiers 1 and 2 of the rollout plan, which includes the largest segment of Missourians yet: first responders, state emergency workers, non-patient facing health care workers, all Missourians over 65 years old, and those under 65 with CDC-recognized health comorbidities. Knodell said the timeline for the continuing rollout is entirely dictated by supply from the federal government and when new versions of the vaccine are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

“[T]his vaccine represents a tremendous opportunity for us to see life return as much to normal as possible,” Knodell said. “If we want to get back to the kind of family gatherings we had in the past, if we want to get back to large spectator sporting events, and community activities, things that we treasure as the state of Missouri, I believe this vaccine and our people’s willingness to consider it — and ultimately to receive it — will do more than anything to get us back to where most Missourians would want to be.”

As for his role in the vaccine rollout, Knodell said: “Public service is very important. It’s important that people are willing to give their time and talents to serve in government when those opportunities arise. If you have that spirit of public service, you can do so much good for so many people out there. If you really have a heart for the people of Missouri, we can do a lot.”