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St. Louis’ health director slams state on COVID response

Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, City of St. Louis Department of Health director, addresses the media on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, during a press conference on recent federal approvals of the coronavirus vaccine for children 5 to 11 years of age outside of Gateway Elementary School in St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, St. Louis Department of Health director, addresses the media in November 2021.

Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, St. Louis health director, said Missouri’s approach to public health is making it harder to fight COVID, especially in nonwhite communities.

During a Washington University virtual panel discussion on COVID-19 and racial equity Tuesday, Davis said Gov. Mike Parson allowing the public health emergency to expire and Attorney General Eric Schmitt suing schools over mask mandates are making it harder to keep pandemic numbers in check.

She also said Missouri has a longstanding history of underfunding public health.

“And with that trickle down to local jurisdictions it means we have very limited budgets to do this work, and we have staff that are underpaid and overworked and are burnt out so we cannot do effective implementation of these strategies,” Davis said.

Davis and her fellow panel members said those problems are felt more severely in communities of color because the health care system denies them equal access.

“These communities didn’t even have equal access to masks,” said Angela Brown, CEO of the St. Louis Regional Health Commission. “And when they did have access, they were priced out of reach.”

Brown said that scenario played out for a second time when health officials recommended N95 and KN95 masks during the surge of the omicron variant.

“They finally got the surgical masks down in price. On Amazon they were 100 for $10. The N95s started at $50 for 25 masks,” Brown said. “That definitely priced people out.”

The disparity between nonwhite and white communities is further evidenced through vaccination rates of children, Davis said.

According to the Health Department, among vaccinated children in St. Louis between the ages 5 to 11, 80% of them are white compared to only 20% who are Black.

Davis is concerned that will get worse with the expected FDA approval of a vaccine for children under 5.

“Now knowing that we are going to have this new age group that is likely going to be approved within the next week, this disparity is only going to widen because I think we will see the same patterns,” Davis said.

Davis said her office is working with minority doctors, public health groups and faith leaders to narrow that gap.

Correction: Among vaccinated children in St. Louis between ages 5 and 11, about 80% are white and 20% are Black, according to the city health department. A previous version of St. Louis Public Radio report included incorrect data on the racial disparity of vaccine rates among children.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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