The city of Milwaukee’s top health official, Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik, is leaving the city’s Health Department.
Kowalik has led the department since September 2018, when she returned to her hometown to attempt to stabilize the embattled office. Now, she says she will join the Trust for America’s Health, a health policy think tank.
"As much as I love my hometown, I believe that I am limited due to factors that are out of my control," Kowalik said in a written statement. "This was evident at multiple points in time through our pandemic response. From access to testing, promotion of masks/face coverings, gathering limits, orders, messaging and outreach for communities of color, and various threats to Health Officers."
Kowalik was appointed by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and unanimously confirmed by the Common Council. She replaced Bevan Baker, who resigned in January 2018 following reports the department failed to follow up with families of lead-poisoned children.
During her tenure, Milwaukee declared racism as a public health crisis. These policies framed how Milwaukee and Milwaukee County responded to the coronavirus pandemic in March.
Since that time, Milwaukee and the county have publicly shared data on the impact of COVID-19 by race and ethnicity.
"We discovered that racism was playing out through the pandemic, which led to a shift in our strategy. Sharing disparities data early on enabled us to set the standard for other communities to do the same; this facilitated action at multiple levels," said Kowalik in the statement.
Kowalik said there is a dire need to address national public health funding beyond 2020 as public health for robust violence prevention programming.
"Funding is required for meaningful health equity and anti-racism work as well," Kowalik said.
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Caroline Gomez-Tom, Milwaukee’s Board of Health president, said in a relatively short amount of time, Kowalik has helped the Health Department make "significant strides in improving the health of many Milwaukee residents, even during an unprecedented health crisis."
Barrett said Kowalik leaves the department in a solid position for progress to continue.
"I am grateful to Commissioner Kowalik for her dedication and leadership, especially during this pandemic," Barrett said in a statement. "I wish her the very best as she advances to her new position."
Not everyone praised Kowalik’s leadership. Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman said her lack of communication and accessibility made her ineffective. Baumann, the city’s downtown alderman, said he was repeatedly contacted by businesses and nonprofit organizations who had questions about various ordinances the Health Department enacted, including the mandatory mask ordinance and restaurant reopening plan.
"I was summoned to the Marquette president’s office because they weren’t getting call backs," Bauman said. "These are not scofflaw businesses skirting the law. They are people needed to get advice from health professionals. It was no way to run a department with a position that significant."
Several other alders praised Kowalik's handling of the coronavirus pandemic in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.
"She was a leader in clearly and openly talking about the disparate impact of COVID-19 on Milwaukee’s African-American and Latino communities, and how COVID-19 magnified existing health disparities," the statement says.
Barrett and Kowalik are expected to address the media on Thursday afternoon.