By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Earlier this month, Jeanette Kowalik, the health commissioner for the City of Milwaukee, announced her resignation. Come the end of the month, Kowalik will be stepping down to begin her new job as director of policy development for the Washington D.C. based nonprofit, Trust for America’s Health.
Kowalik returned to her hometown of Milwaukee in September 2018 after the resignation of former commissioner Baker. Mayor Tom Barrett requested the resignation of former commissioner Baker after learning about Baker’s failings regarding the lead poisoning prevention program.
“It is with mixed emotions that I have submitted my resignation to Mayor Tom Barrett to join the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), a national leader in health policy. As much as I love my hometown, I believe that I am limited due to factors that are out of my control. This was evident at multiple points in time through our pandemic response,” Kowalik wrote in her resignation.
Kowalik said that her new position will allow her to redirect her energy and skills to “upstream approaches that will improve the health of millions of Americans.”
Earlier this week, online publication, The Daily Beast, published an op-ed by Kowalik, in which she addressed the racism and sexism she faced as the health commissioner.
Kowalik said there was a constant power struggle from day one.
“I was micro-aggressed, man- and “Karen” -splained beyond belief, and subject to major passive-aggressive outbursts, and plenty of double standards,” Kowalik wrote in the op-ed.
In the piece, Kowalik recalled being dragged for having a necessary surgery that required her to take two weeks of medical leave. Meanwhile, a cabinet member took multiple weeklong vacations and was never reprimanded for it, she said.
In addition to dealing with the racism and sexism at work, Kowalik and her team were working to address the racism that has long plagued Milwaukee. In 2019, the Milwaukee Health Department declared racism a public health crisis.
As the department began to prepare its plan of action, coronavirus hit. The pandemic further illustrated the racial inequities and health disparities in Milwaukee. Kowalik explained in the op-ed that the department kept the racial injustices in Milwaukee in mind as it tried to handle the pandemic.
She added that the department was “in a state of disrepair, so there were still a number of vacancies and unmet technical needs. We were waiting for millions of dollars in federal funding to do anything.”
The lack of funding meant it was hard to get the facts out to vulnerable communities, testing was limited and protective equipment was hard to find. While testing eventually became more available and masks soon became a requirement, the damage was done.
In his statement regarding his resignation, Barrett expressed his thanks for Kowalik’s dedication and leadership.
“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,” Barret said.
The Board of Health also released a statement thanking Kowalik for her work and efforts these past two years.
“Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic response, Dr. Kowalik collected the data that identified what we now know is the increased impact of the COVID19 pandemic on communities of color, specifically Black, Hispanic and Indigenous community members. This allowed for culturally-responsive messaging and interventions to help stop the spread. She also led the department in creating orders that relied on data to inform when and how to resume business operations,” the statement read.
In a previous statement, Caroline Gomez-Tom, president of the City of Milwaukee’s Board of Health, said Kowalik created a strong foundation for whoever is next.
“I hope that her successor has the same foresight, decisiveness, dedication to public health and love for Milwaukee as Dr. Kowalik,” Gomez-Tom said.
In her resignation, Kowalik expressed her confidence in the Milwaukee Health Department team.
“I will continue to provide support through the transition and believe that the progress made over the last two years will set the stage for continued growth and innovation under the next commissioner,” Kowalik stated. “In closing, I am deeply thankful for the opportunity to serve my hometown in this capacity.”