Why Milwaukee’s Health Commissioner Resigned

Jeanette Kowalik feels “limited” in her job as Milwaukee’s health commissioner.

Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik is resigning from the position and will join a health policy organization in Washington, D.C.

Kowalik returned to her hometown to take over as commissioner of health in September 2018. 

“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 release issued Wednesday morning. “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. I have decided to redirect my energy and skills to upstream approaches that will improve the health of millions of Americans.”

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Since mid-March, the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County have grappled with a rapid and ever-changing pandemic response that has been centered on policy in the form of local public health orders. Kowalik has issued several orders aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives.

“Milwaukee was the first to declare racism as a public health crisis in 2019,” Kowalik said. “These policies framed how we responded to COVID-19.”

In March, the city and county began to publicly share 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,” Kowalik said. “Sharing disparities data early on enabled us to set the standard for other communities to do the same. This facilitated action at multiple levels.”

Kowalik was among many public health officials to acknowledged how historic underfunding of public health in the country has negatively impacted the ability to manage the coronavirus pandemic. Kowalik stressed that there is a dire need to address national public health funding beyond 2020 as the public braces for increased chronic and vaccine-preventable disease, childhood lead poisoning and the need for robust violence prevention programming. 

“Funding is required for meaningful health equity and anti-racism work as well,” she said.

Kowalik also stressed an urgent need for policy to support long-term public health and diverse communities.

“This policy development and advocacy has to occur at the national level for sustainability,” she said.

Kowalik said she submitted her resignation to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett with “mixed emotions.”

She will join the leadership team of Trust for America’s Health, where she will serve as director of policy development. 

“My experience as a local health officer will be an asset to policy development at TFAH,” Kowalik said. 

She added that she is confident that the Milwaukee Health Department, which consists of five deputy commissioners and a chief of staff, will be able to successfully lead the department following her departure. She said she will continue to provide support through the transition.

Kowalik replaced interim commissioner Patricia McManus in 2018. McManus had taken over for Bevan Baker, who stepped down in January of that year after issues surfaced about whether families had been properly notified about children who had tested positive for elevated lead levels. 

She previously served as associate director of women’s and infant health for the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization. She has also held positions with health departments in Madison, Wauwatosa and Chicago.  

“I am grateful to Commissioner Kowalik for her dedication and leadership, especially during this pandemic,” Barrett said. “She is leaving the department in a solid position to continue to make progress. I wish her the very best as she advances to her new position.”

The Milwaukee Health Department has made significant strides during Kowalik’s brief tenure, even during an unprecedented health crisis, City of Milwaukee Board of Health President Caroline Gomez-Tom said. 

“She has created a strong foundation for whoever becomes the next commissioner,” Gomez-Tom said. “I hope that her successor has the same foresight, decisiveness, dedication to public health, and love for Milwaukee as Dr. Kowalik.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.