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City of Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik holds a sign from the 1940s while speaking at a Public Safety and Health Committee meeting about coronavirus preparations March 5 at City Hall. (Photo: Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Milwaukee’s health commissioner has resigned to take a new job in Washington, D.C., as the city and county continue to battle the coronavirus pandemic, one of the most serious public health crises in generations.

Jeanette Kowalik, who is joining a national health policy think tank, cited limits on her ability to address the pandemic as one reason for her departure. She is the latest in a recent string of high-profile and cabinet-leveldepartures from Mayor Tom Barrett’s administration.

“As much as I love my hometown, I believe that I am limited due to factors that are out of my control,” she said in the announcement, referencing obstacles to testing, public health orders, mask messaging and limits on public gatherings as part of the pandemic response.

She made clear in an interview she was referring to Republican state lawmakers and the conservative-leaning state Supreme Court, who have challenged or knocked down public health orders aimed at preventing the virus’ spread.

“I’m talking about the state … and all of the challenges that we’ve faced as local health officers along the way, from the spring election all the way up until now,” she said.  “We’re trying to save lives with the spread of COVID, and then we’re dealing with all of these barriers to being able to do our work.”

A Milwaukee native, Kowalik became health commissioner in September 2018, months after the previous health commissioner, Bevan Baker, was pushed out after the department made a series of missteps and failures related to treating and notifying lead-poisoned children and the department’s cancer screening and family planning programs.

Under her leadership, Milwaukee declared racism a public health crisis in 2019 and the city and county were among the first in the nation to publicly report data on the race and ethnicity of COVID-19 patients and those who died from the virus.

Since the first coronavirus case was reported March 13, the city has reported more than 17,700 positive cases and more than 275 deaths.

The Milwaukee Health Department leadership team, which includes five deputy commissioners and a chief of staff, will manage the department until a new health commissioner is in place, she said. 

In a statement, Barrett thanked Kowalik for her dedication and leadership to the city, especially during the pandemic, and said she left the department in a “solid position.”

Ald. Robert Bauman said he was not surprised by her departure.

“I don’t think she was very effective,” Bauman said. “She was essentially completely unresponsive.”

Bauman blamed Kowalik for some of the confusion among business owners and others as they tried to navigate coronavirus concerns. Her department was criticized early in the pandemic for not having enough contact tracers — something city officials said they quickly remedied — and later for changing guidance on school reopenings.

Still, her work garnered praise from other city leaders, including Common Council President Cavalier Johnson, who said she stabilized the department.

“I think that the department is in a better position because Jeanette Kowalik has been here as a commissioner,” he said. “So it’s sad to see her go. But I wish her well in her future endeavors.”

Coronavirus takes a toll on public health leaders

As health commissioner, Kowalik led the city and county response to the coronavirus pandemic.

But many of the steps she and other local authorities took to try to contain the virus were overturned at the state level as the pandemic turned into a partisan conflict over stay-at-home orders and mask mandates.

“It’s been extremely challenging to be a health officer in general in this country because of what’s happening at the national level, but also in this state because of this whole political beef that’s playing out,” Kowalik said. “So we get in the middle of it, and we’re just trying to do our jobs.”

In mid-May, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order, siding with Republican lawmakers over the Democratic governor’s administration.  The decision led to a patchwork of local rules across the state, and the City of Milwaukee maintained its own stay-at-home public health order after the court’s ruling.

In mid-July, Milwaukee officials approved a mask ordinance for indoor and outdoor public spaces, weeks before Evers launched a statewide mask mandate Aug. 1. Last week, a conservative legal firm announced it was going to court to try to eliminate the statewide mask mandate.

In addition, public health leaders across the country — particularly those who are women — have faced attacks and harassment as they sought to respond to the pandemic.

Ohio’s statewide public health officer stepped down after demonstrators carrying guns protested outside her house. In California, a health officer resigned after attendees at a public meeting rattled off her home address and referenced their right to bear arms.

Closer to Milwaukee, Kirsten Johnson, the top public health official for Ozaukee and Washington counties, said her employees have been harassed online and have been yelled at, cursed at, and, on two occasions, followed while they were driving a health department vehicle in West Bend.

“It’s just this daily barrage of anger,” Johnson said. “It’s taking a toll on people emotionally.”

Kowalik acknowledged the job has affected her own health and referenced a surgery she had delayed and rescheduled this May after her health deteriorated, a decision that drew some criticism.

“This is a pandemic and the level of stress and energy and sacrifice that has gone into this work — I have multiple health issues,” she said. “I’m not going to kill myself for a job.”

The troubled past of Milwaukee’s Health Department

Kowalik took over a department shaken by a string of controversies and staff departures.

A top official in the lead program resigned in July 2018 rather than be fired. Another employee in the program was fired after he reportedly resisted using federal funding to clean up lead hazards in homes with lead-poisoned children.

That same year, the department’s director of nursing was suspended after an investigation found she had sabotaged the department and the director of family and community health lost her job after the city’s family planning and cancer screening programs struggled to provide key services to residents.

Kowalik led a “Herculean effort” to address those problems, said Johnson, the council president, who along with nine of his council colleagues publicly thanked her Wednesday for her service to the city.

“Because she had been able to provide the leadership necessary, we were able to get work resumed so we could work to make sure we can serve families, neighborhoods and children with elevated blood lead levels,” he said. 

Reggie Moore, director of the department’s Office of Violence Prevention, praised Kowalik as a “vocal champion for violence prevention and racial equity.”

“Although her departure is a loss for our city, it challenges us to examine our commitment to public health and the leadership and resources required for us to effectively serve our community,” he said. 

But even Kowalik acknowledged “there’s still work that needs to be done” in the department.

Kowalik previously had worked for the city Health Department for six years. While there, she got a master’s in public health from Northern Illinois University. She then earned a doctorate in health sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2013.

Kowalik was working for a Washington, D.C.-based public health nonprofit group when Barrett tapped her to lead the health department in July 2018. Now, the mayor has to search for a new health commissioner — at the same time the city is looking for a new police chief and a new executive director of the Fire and Police Commission.

No timeframe has been announced for finding Kowalik’s replacement. The health commissioner earned just over $132,000 in 2019, according to the latest city salary figures available.

Contact Ashley Luthern at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @aluthern.

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