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St. Louis health department’s new director plans beyond the coronavirus pandemic

Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, outside of the City of St. Louis Department of Health. Dr. Davis is the new Health Director in St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis is the new director of the St. Louis Department of Health. She plans to help protect people from the coronavirus, address the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and focus on behavioral health.

Dr. Mati-Hlatshwayo Davis is an infectious disease specialist who's been a leading expert during the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones named her as the director of the city’s health department.

Hlatshwayo Davis has spent the fall preparing to take over the department, which she said suffers from high burnout rates, increasing staff turnover and lack of funds. She plans to tackle continuing vaccine hesitancy and complacency as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Sarah Fentem asked Hlatshwayo Davis about her plans to make the city healthier:

Sarah Fentem: And so I know that you were sworn in [Oct. 20]. What have you been doing? Have you been working for a couple of weeks at this point?

Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis: I thought it was important for me to get to know people and meet with certain pertinent people before I started. I thought it would be prudent for me to meet with community leaders within the city and the region, as well as other directors and commissioners of health departments across the country by way of a listening tour.

To be honest, I was exhausted. It felt like I had two jobs. But it was extraordinarily rewarding. I'm still on that listening tour, because I obviously can't get to everybody. But I believe that it has made my start a lot easier.

What I will tell you is that my listening tour made a few things very clear. No. 1: That we have some of the most brilliant minds and incredibly hardworking people in this city who have been working tirelessly through this pandemic.

Unfortunately, you know, the health department [has] as other health departments across the country have suffered from a lot of turnover, burnout. We are limited in what we can do because of how overwhelming the ask of the work is as well.

The next thing that has come out of that listening tour is how everyone agrees with me that our priority for the health department has to center equity in everything that we do.

We have seen very clear data and statistics during this pandemic around how the most vulnerable communities, Black and brown communities, have been disproportionately impacted in every way across this pandemic. And how that hurts our cities and our communities ultimately.

Fentem: One of the things you have said is among your top priorities is increasing vaccination rates. Have you seen any improvements in people's opinions about the COVID-19 vaccine in the past few months? What issues are you seeing around people getting vaccinated?

Hlatshwayo Davis: When we developed this vaccine, in preparation for the rollout, we started to do education. And at that time, the questions were very basic: How was this vaccine made? What are the side effects? Is it safe?

So [now], the conversation may not be as simple and may not have as captive an audience as we had then.

I think the way that we're addressing those questions, and they've heard this, but they still don't believe it. And so it's more so around building trust and making sure people understand where that information is coming from and why it's correct.

But we need to understand that, and empathize with the fact that they are tired, they've been dealing with this for a long time, they have had expectations that haven't been met.

So what the health department has done is partnered with community organizations and leaders that have already earned the trust of the communities. They serve communities where we know there's a considerable amount of distrust based on historic and current issues around systemic and institutional racism, and also around disparities in care that make it difficult for them to access the quality of care that they deserve.

Fentem: COVID won't last forever, hopefully. What are some of the other health issues in the city that you want to address beyond the pandemic?

Hlatshwayo Davis: Gun violence, we know that this has been an area of great concern for the city.

Another area that is very important to me as behavioral health. We know that this is an area of concern across the board but specifically can be difficult to address in certain cultures where it is not the norm to talk about mental illness. And so this has become a priority for the health department, to make sure that we are addressing this and providing resources.

Lastly, sexually transmitted infections have been and continue to be an area of concern in the city. And we would like to make sure that we are addressing this in a way that provides information testing and treatment as well as training for folks in health care.

Fentem: It sounds like a lot of what you're talking about is people-to-people communication. Education, outreach. How exactly do you do that? What does that look like in real life?

Hlatshwayo Davis: You have to create opportunities to get to people, for lack of a better phrase. But unfortunately we know through our work on disparities, that not everybody has access to information in equitable ways. Not everyone has a working phone. Not everyone has working internet and can get to our website.

Again, this is where partnerships with community organizations are key. There are places that people go to, for their day-to-day lives, that if we partner with, we can then get to them and have these conversations.

And what's better about that approach is that it's in places that they feel safe, places where they feel like, “OK, this is a place that I can trust, the people that I'm getting information from.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the history of the St. Louis Department of Health. Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis is the second Black woman to serve as its director.

 Follow Sarah on Twitter:@petit_smudge

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