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Omicron spike has St. Louis health director promising more tests, new strategies

Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, outside of the City of St. Louis Department of Health.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis was sworn in as the director of the St. Louis Department of Health in October 2021.

The director of the St. Louis Department of Health said Thursday on St. Louis on the Air that the city’s seven-day average COVID-19 positivity rate had climbed to at least 33%, with Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis calling the current wave of coronavirus cases “an alarming public health crisis.”

Between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1, the city saw 390 new confirmed cases and 139 new hospital admissions. Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, St. Louis has recorded a total of 652 deaths.

In conversation with host Sarah Fenske, the health director pushed back on the notion that since the omicron variant has resulted in milder COVID-19 symptoms for many individuals, the overall problem is somehow less severe.

“What I would challenge people to reconsider is that ‘mild’ for cases of individual people is very different from the overall public health and system-level impact,” Hlatshwayo Davis said. “So even when you say ‘mild’ for individuals, when you compare individual to individual, we have seen so much higher numbers, record numbers nationally — and certainly within the city of St. Louis and the region — that the relative proportion of hospitalizations and associated deaths is still too high for us to characterize this as mild by any means.”

Hlatshwayo Davis said she’s ramping up the city’s response. She’s working to increase access to testing, with up to another 2,000 PCR tests becoming available at local test sites in the next week (and more antigen tests as well). That could reduce the strain on local emergency rooms, which she said have been forced to handle people simply trying to get tested. She’s also working with local schools and businesses on best practices and testing availability.

A national expert on infectious diseases, Hlatshwayo Davis began serving as the city’s health director this past October and has taken a four-pronged approach to combating the ongoing pandemic.

Her focuses include increasing vaccinations in areas most at risk, as well as hammering home education around mitigation strategies like masks, pushing to make testing more widely available and working with businesses and community entities on ventilation issues and other best practices.

St. Louis health director shares approach to COVID battle
Listen as Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis digs into the region’s recent huge wave of COVID-19 cases — and opens up about what keeps her going in a job and a field that has been incredibly challenging of late.

The doctor also noted the city’s new isolation and quarantine guidelines, available on its website. They follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recentupdate on that front.

“The period of isolation for a person with a positive COVID-19 test may be as short as five days, reflecting the CDC’s observation that this is the most contagious time during infection,” Hlatshwayo Davis said.

But she was quick to say that the length of isolation, which can range from five to 10 days, “hinges on a few things” outlined in the city’s new guidance, including the ability to undergo testing.

“The same is true for the period of quarantine for a close contact,” Hlatshwayo Davis said. “[It] may be as short as no days with a mask or five days with a negative PCR test or two negative antigen tests taken 24 hours apart — again, all hinging on access. So we have really made guidance that allows people to walk through what they are to do if they don’t have that critical supply or critical access to testing. That is unfortunately a national issue at this point.”

Hlatshwayo Davis said that the city’s guidelines could change as she continues to monitor data.

The health director also answered questions from listeners and touched on some of her other public health priorities for the city.

Members of the St. Louis community reached out with words of encouragement for her as well, including a listener on Twitter named Caroline who wrote that she was “grateful that Dr. Mati decided to accept [the] challenge” of leading the health department, when such a job has often proved to be a thankless one during the COVID-19 crisis.

In response, Hlatshwayo Davis opened up about what motivated her to take on the role — after thinking about it long and hard — this past fall, and what continues to motivate her.

“You don’t do the work I do in infectious diseases and public health if this isn’t what you love to do. It is hard — it is. It can be enormously, enormously challenging,” she said. “But I have been fortunate to have a partner in the household, Dr. Jesse Davis, who is my life partner, but who is a physician, and who is a champion for women for me, and who supports me. And I have two beautifully healthy children. And it’s just that. And what keeps me going is wanting to keep him, my babies, my communities and this city, and really our communities around the world, safer.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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