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St. Louis’ health director no longer a licensed doctor, lawyers say

St. Louis’ health director no longer a licensed doctor, lawyers say

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Dr. Fredrick Echols

Dr. Fredrick Echols, St. Louis' now acting health director, talks with Affinia Healthcare employees before the opening of a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at 4414 North Florissant Avenue in St. Louis on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. (David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com)

ST. LOUIS — The head of the city’s health department, Dr. Fredrick Echols, is no longer a licensed physician and as a result may not meet the qualifications to hold the position as the top health authority in St. Louis, attorneys suing the city argued this week in federal court filings.

Questions about his qualifications began Tuesday when city lawyers said in a filing that Echols needed to correct a “misstatement” in his court testimony last week in a lawsuit filed on behalf of residents of a homeless camp downtown. Echols stopped seeing patients “some time ago” due to his employment in the public health field and is not currently licensed to practice medicine, the memo said.

Lawyers in two lawsuits against the city then pounced.

The ArchCity Defenders legal advocacy firm, which is representing those who occupied the homeless camp, said it needed to research “significant issues that have legal bearing on this case,” including Echols’ authority to order the camp cleared.

A lawyer involved in a separate legal action challenging the city's coronavirus-related stay-at-home order, Bevis Schock, said that he could use the questions about Echols' qualifications to help his legal case.  

According to the city charter, the health department director must be a licensed physician, have a master’s degree in public health or “have been certified by the American Board of Preventive Medicine and Public Health.” Echols’ biographical information does not indicate he has an advanced degree in public health, and a search of Echols’ name on the website for the American Board of Preventive Medicine returned no results.

Echols is the first medical doctor to serve as health director since 2007, the city says. He formerly worked as the director of Communicable Disease, Vector and Veterinary Programs for the St. Louis County Department of Public Health and was the chief of communicable diseases for the Illinois Department of Public Health. He also spent five years as a doctor in the U.S. Navy.

Mayoral spokesman Jacob Long said Thursday that Echols’ education and experience met “all the necessary requirements to have his job.” 

“We are extremely fortunate, given his medical and professional background managing communicable diseases, to have Dr. Echols at the helm of the department during the current COVID-19 pandemic,” he said by email.

Echols did not return an email seeking comment.

City lawyers in the case involving the homeless encampment wrote that, “Dr. Echols’s mistake in his testimony does not alter the fact that he is a qualified expert in public health, nor does it alter the reality that plaintiff’s claim is now moot and that no viable constitutional claim was pleaded in the first place.”

federal judge on Saturday declined to halt the clearance of the camp, saying that city officials had promised that temporary housing was available for the camp’s occupants and that officials also promised not to arrest or prosecute those living in Poelker Park. 

City officials, including Echols, said the roughly 50 occupants of the park were living in crowded and unsanitary conditions and risked spreading the coronavirus.

Schock sued in federal court on behalf of two businesses that said the city and St. Louis County stay-at-home orders were no longer valid after a similar state order expired. The suit says only the state director of Health and Senior Services has the authority to order businesses closed. Schock’s request for a temporary restraining order is being considered by a judge. 

Kim Bell of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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