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Members Of The Board Of Aldermen Question St. Louis Health Director's Qualifications

St. Louis Health Director Dr. Fred Echols addresses media on Feb. 28, 2020. Echols says although there are no coronavirus cases in Missouri, residents should be prepared to prevent the virus.
File photo | Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Fred Echols addresses reporters at a news conference in February.

Updated at 10:15 p.m. May 27 with Mayor Lyda Krewson's announcement that Dr. Fred Echols will be acting health director 

Members of the St. Louis Board of Alderman are questioning Dr. Fred Echols’ qualifications to be the city's health director.

After learning that Echols no longer has a license to practice medicine, the board’s Rules Committee scheduled a meeting this week to investigate his credentials. 

As a result, Echols has had to defend his expertise, and city officials and medical professionals have defended his record. But late Wednesday, Mayor Lyda Krewson announced that she and Echols agree that it's in the city's best interests to amend his appointment to acting director.

Under the city charter, the health director must have one of the following qualifications: be a licensed physician, have a master's in public health, or be certified by the American Board of Preventative Medicine and Public Health.

Echols graduated from the Boston University School of Medicine and served as a Navy doctor. He completed a public health training program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and worked at the Illinois Department of Public Health and the St. Louis County Department of Public Health as an infectious disease specialist.

While Echols held a license to practice medicine in the Navy, he let it lapse after he completed his military service and started working in public and community health.

Krewson hired Echols as the city’s health director early last year. Echols’ lack of a license surfaced earlier this spring when he testified in a lawsuit Arch City Defenders filed against the city that sought to block city officials from removing a homeless tent encampment downtown. 

Echols and city attorney Julian Bush submitted a correction to Echols’ testimony in which he originally stated he was licensed to practice medicine. He had misheard the question and worked to correct the record as soon as he could, Echols said.

Alderwoman Sharon Tyus, D-1st Ward, called a joint meeting of the Health and Human Services and Rules committees on Wednesday to investigate Echols’ qualifications.

“One of things that’s important about civil service is that we vet people and make sure they meet the qualifications and make sure they’re not being unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged,” said Tyus, who chairs the Rules Committee.

Tyus has been critical of the Health Department’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying she is disappointed by a lack of testing in areas of north St. Louis where many have become ill from the virus.

When Alderwoman Megan Green, D-15th Ward, asked Bush if Echols meets the requirements outlined in the city charter, Bush said “regretfully” that Echols did not. 

“I think he’s done a splendid job as director of health and hospitals; I think he almost satisfies those requirements, but he’s not quite there. And I say that with great regret,” Bush said. 

Echols told members of the committees Wednesday that he has the educational qualifications to serve as director. He also defended his record, saying the department has worked tirelessly to promote better health for the city’s poorest residents and black people in particular.

“As long as I’m in this role, my heart is in this community,” he said. “My integrity is really important to me as I move forward. Whether I’m in the city or somewhere else, I always want to be truthful and forthcoming with information, particularly as it relates to me and my role and the impact that may have.”

Dr. Will Ross, chairman of the Joint Board of Health and Hospitals, told the committee that the training Echols received at the CDC is equal to a public health degree.

“I can say, based on my extensive knowledge of public health training programs, this program is robust enough to qualify anyone to serve in a public health leadership position,” Ross said.

Krewson said that Echols’ experience and training are sterling and that he is fully qualified for the position.

“Some seek to discredit this highly qualified physician; it is unclear what their motive is,” Krewson wrote in a letter to the Board of Aldermen.

“Dr. Echols’ credentials as an MD with extensive public health training are far superior to the minimum qualifications allowed by the city charter,” she wrote.

In announcing the decision to amend Echols' appointment to acting director, Krewson wrote in a Facebook post that Echols has the training and experience necessary for the job.

Krewson wrote that in light of that distraction, and the opinion of Bush, she, Echols and Ross had decided it was best for Echols to serve as acting health director.

The committee is expected to resume the hearing Thursday.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.