Milwaukee Has a New Health Commissioner

And updates about Milwaukee’s vaccination plan

Kirsten Johnson has been appointed as Milwaukee’s new health commissioner, Mayor Tom Barrett announced on Thursday.

Johnson previously served as the director and health officer of the Washington Ozaukee Public Health Department. In this position, Johnson has led a multi-county coronavirus pandemic response and mobilized partners to create multi-sector community health coalitions.

“She has an extensive history of leadership and service in the field of public health and will bring experience, knowledge and commitment to the Milwaukee Health Department,” Barrett said in a virtual meeting with reporters on Thursday. “Her expertise will strengthen the efforts of our health department as we continue to navigate the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Johnson previously served as a health policy fellow and advisor for the offices of Democratic congressman Ron Kind, where she analyzed, developed and wrote health policy for the senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Johnson’s appointment is subject to Common Council approval.

“It is my hope that within the next four or five weeks we will have her confirmed,” Barrett said.

He doesn’t expect opposition to the appointment.

“I’ve been wrong before but I’m confident she will make it through the Common Council,” Barrett said.

Johnson would replace Jeanette Kowalik, who resigned from the position in September after two years on the job to join a health policy organization in Washington, D.C. Kowalik said she had been limited in her role and had growing concerns about threats made to health officers over limits put in place to stem the spread of the virus.

Marlaina Jackson has served as interim commissioner since Kowalik’s departure. She will return to her previous role as deputy health commissioner upon approval of Johnson’s appointment.

“She has stepped in without a doubt in the most challenging time for anyone to step forward and has truly been magnificent,” Barrett said of Jackson.

Barrett also provided an update of the city’s COVID-19 vaccination distribution. On Tuesday, a vaccination site opened at the Wisconsin Center, with vaccines initially being administered to front-line workers employed by the city of Milwaukee and unaffiliated health care providers.

More than 600 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine had been distributed this week out of the 800 received. The city expects to receive an additional 3,000 doses of the vaccine next week.

Next in line to receive the vaccine are essential workers, teachers and police officers, among others.

The Wisconsin Center is expected to be used as a community vaccination site for the general public after all priority groups designated by state and federal governments receive the vaccine.

Barrett and health officials continued to lament a decline in the number of people being tested for COVID-19 at free community sites in the city.

On Wednesday, nearly 840 people were tested at American Family Field, formerly Miller Park., a number that Barrett said is “lower than I want.”

A testing site on Milwaukee’s Northwest side administered 422 tests on Wednesday, while a South Side site tested 229 people. Another 237 tests were administered in South Milwaukee.

“These numbers are still much lower than we’d like them to be. When in doubt, we urge individuals to be tested,” Barrett said.

Health officer Darren Rausch, who serves as director of Greenfield’s Health Department, said an average of 25,000 tests per week have been administered at the sites over the past two weeks.

“It’s a far cry from where we were in early November where we were seeing almost 46,000 tests per week,” Rausch said.

Testing remains a key element in the fight against COVID-19, Milwaukee County’s Emergency Management Medical Director Ben Weston said.

“Our testing sites are underutilized,” Weston said. “That means you can get a test quickly and extremely easily.”

Weston also noted that Milwaukee County’s online COVID-19 dashboard has been updated to include information on vaccine administration, including the number of people vaccinated, as well as the race, ethnicity and ages of those individuals.

To date, nearly 22,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Milwaukee County.

The Unified Emergency Operations Center has also launched HealthyMKE.com, which is designed to allow for effective dissemination of vaccine information for the community.

“We want to be transparent about the equity with which the vaccine is distributed. At the moment, we see clear challenges,” Weston said. “We certainly recognize the equity challenges inherent in vaccine hesitancy, as well as the burden of disease from COVID in our populations of color. We’ll continue to outreach to all of those communities, especially in those that are historically and institutionally underserved and certainly keep an eye on the race and ethnicity numbers as we move forward.”

Preliminary data shows that the majority of people who have been vaccinated in the first wave are white and in younger age categories, Weston noted.

Efforts need to be made to ensure equitable distribution to all age and race groups, he said.

It’s possible that the early data is skewed, Weston added.

Barrett said he is very concerned about making sure that Blacks and Hispanics have easy access to vaccinations.

“We’ve gone through 2020 where there was a lot of social unrest about racial inequities and the negative impact of this pandemic on the African American and Hispanic communities,” Barrett said. “I think it would be a grave injustice if in the distribution of vaccinations that we went back to the old stand-by that perpetuated these inequities.”

Barrett said he has asked the state to address these concerns.

“If you look at the people who need the vaccinations the most, if you look at the highest mortality groups, those are the ones that should be at the front of the line,” Barrett said. “It shouldn’t be for healthy young people who are working remotely. It should be for people who are really faced with some serious health challenges.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.