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Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, An Infectious Disease Expert, Named St. Louis Health Director

Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis makes her remarks as the new Director of Health for the City of St. Louis in St. Louis on September 1, 2021. An infectious disease expert, Dr. Hlatshwayo Davis has worked on a city initiative to decrease HIV rates and on the St. Louis health board.
Bill Greenblatt
Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis delivers remarks Wednesday as the new director of health for the city of St. Louis. An infectious disease expert, Hlatshwayo Davis has worked on a city initiative to decrease HIV rates and on the St. Louis health board.

Updated at 5:35 p.m. Sept. 1 with additional information

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones has named Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, a national expert in infectious disease prevention, as the city’s permanent health director.

She’s scheduled to begin her new position next month.

Hlatshwayo Davis serves on the city’s board of health and at the Veterans Administration medical center in St. Louis and has chaired a city initiative to reduce HIV rates.

“I am humbled and honored to accept this position, which affords me the opportunity to serve the city I love now at the highest level,” she said. “I am thankful for the opportunity provided me at such an important time in our nation to step up and to serve as the director of health as we face perhaps the most challenging part of this pandemic.”

In the past year and a half, Hlatshwayo Davis has become a familiar expert on television and radio on the coronavirus pandemic and its disproportionate effects on poor people and people of color.

The pandemic is the most immediate problem facing the city, she said. But she intends to focus on the city’s high rates of gun violence and sexually transmitted diseases.

Hlatshwayo Davis said scientific evidence will guide all her decisions. One of her first priorities is increasing the city’s COVID-19 vaccination rates. Just over half of all people 18 and older in St. Louis are fully vaccinated.

“I have seen firsthand what COVID is doing to our loved ones,” she said. “I have counseled my own patients on the risks and benefits of a vaccine. And I understand what we need to do as a society to reach our new normal.”

People are more willing to get the vaccine than they used to be, she said. But many still can’t find a way to get the shot.

Hlatshwayo Davis succeeds Dr. Fred Echols, whose title shifted to acting health director in May 2020 after the city’s Board of Aldermen found he had let his license to practice medicine lapse after he became involved in public service.

Echols had applied for the job, but Hlatshwayo Davis was the best fit, Jones said. He will continue to serve as the city’s health commissioner.

“It was important to find someone who is willing to take on all the challenges of our public health system right now. It’s not just about infectious disease," Jones said. “It’s also about gun violence, it’s about making sure our health department returns to the stature it once had.”

Hlatshwayo Davis, a Zimbabwe native, said her interest in public health was shaped by the death of her father, who was diagnosed with cancer and diabetes.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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