When Rex Archer turned 65 two years ago, he and his wife decided he would step away from his job as the director of the Kansas City Health Department and focus on teaching, writing a book and spending time with his two grandchildren.
Those plans were disrupted when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Instead of leaving his job, Archer stayed on and helped guide Kansas City’s response to a pandemic that would claim the lives of nearly 2,400 people in the region.
“I didn’t take a vacation this last year just because it has been so busy,” Archer said.
On July 31, he will take his retirement from the Kansas City Health Department. City Hall will do a national search for a successor to Archer, who has run the department since 1998.
“While Dr. Archer has led Kansas City through many difficult moments, none compare to the challenges our community has faced in the wake of COVID-19,” Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said in a statement. “I have appreciated Dr. Archer’s steady counsel as we’ve worked to keep our city — and this entire region — safe. I thank Dr. Archer for his leadership and his decades of service to Kansas Citians.”
While the health department’s top official isn’t often a household name, Archer rose to prominence during the spread of the novel coronavirus with his outspoken exhortations for the public to follow health guidelines and his criticisms of the country’s lack of investment in public health over the years.
Even on Tuesday, as he prepared to publicly announce his forthcoming retirement at City Hall during a time when new cases in Kansas City are far from their peak in late 2020, Archer sounded warnings about government officials learning their lessons from the pandemic.
“I’ve often said that it wasn’t primarily the virus that took this country down with this pandemic, it was all of our inequities and injustices in ignoring the 2003 and 2004 SARS outbreak,” Archer said in an interview. “And not learning lessons from that, not rebuilding our public health infrastructure, not creating an effective and vibrant and responsive state public health lab system.”
Even so, Archer said he was proud of the way Kansas City helped lead the region’s pandemic response.
“We took actions in the first wave before we even had our first documented case,” Archer said. “It was obvious that it was going around the country, that it was places that had waited until they had their first documented cases that were chasing the outbreak. So we went to stay-at-home orders, a year ago, more than a year ago, without actually having a specific, verified case in Kansas City. That made a huge difference.”
Archer said the city was also aggressive in stemming the transmission of the coronavirus in long-term care facilities and in implementing a mask mandate earlier than some other cities.
Still, some aspects continue to worry him. Namely, the lack of scientific literacy in the United States and the dearth of dedicated healthcare and science journalists to inform the public on matters of public health.
He also said the federal government mishandled several aspects of the coronavirus response.
“The federal government should have paid bar owners and restaurants to close, kept them afloat and made sure that their workers were paid, because there are negative consequences to these actions and not being able to put food on your family’s table,” Archer said. “So, there were some major mistakes, this country has still not learned the lesson, we still did not have mandatory paid sick leave and quarantine leave in this country.”
Lucas applauded Archer’s tenure beyond the pandemic response, noting the health department’s work on expanding mental health services to combat violent crime, access to healthy meals, vaccines and sanitation.
“Throughout his 23 years of service to Kansas Citians as director of public health, Dr. Rex Archer has built a health department all Kansas Citians can be proud of — a department that has prioritized equitable healthcare delivery to all communities in Kansas City and has prioritized wrap-around services as part of its fundamental mission,” Lucas said.