Dr. Jeanette Kowalik announced on September 2 that she would resign her position as Commissioner of Health for the City of Milwaukee in order to return to Washington DC for a position with a respected health policy organization.
Dr. Kowalik has been Commissioner since September 2018. She returned to her hometown to help the City of Milwaukee Health Department (MHD) during a time of crisis. During her tenure, she was able to stabilize the health department, reorganize and reconnect the city to community, regional and state public health partners, and led the city through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since March 13, the city and county of Milwaukee has grappled with a rapid and ever-changing pandemic response that has been centered on policy in the form of local public health orders. With the support of Mayor Tom Barrett, Dr. Kowalik issued several orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and save lives.
“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,” said Dr. Kowalik. “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.”
Under Dr. Kowalik’s leadership, Milwaukee was the first municipality to declare racism as a public health crisis in 2019. Her policies also helped frame how the city responded to COVID-19. For example, in March the city began to publicly share data on the impact of COVID-19 by race and ethnicity. It was discovered that racism was playing out through the pandemic, which led to a shift in the containment strategy.
Sharing disparities data early on enabled Milwaukee to set the standard for other communities to do the same. Many public health officials have acknowledged how historic underfunding of public health in America has negatively impacted the country’s ability to manage the pandemic.
“I am excited to join TFAH’s leadership team as Director of Policy Development and return to Washington DC. My experience as a local Health Officer will be an asset to policy development at TFAH,” said Dr. Kowalik. “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. In closing, I am deeply thankful for the opportunity to serve my hometown in this capacity.”
One of the factors that interested Dr. Kowalik in the new position was her recognition of a dire need to address the national public health funding beyond 2020. Public health remains unprepared for dealing with increased chronic and vaccine preventable disease, due to lack of funding. Better resources are required to provide meaningful health equity and anti-racism measures.
“I am grateful to Commissioner Kowalik for her dedication and leadership, especially during this pandemic,” said Mayor Tom Barrett. “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.”
In a relatively short amount of time, Dr. Kowalik has helped the Milwaukee Health Department make significant strides and improved the health of many Milwaukee residents, even during an unprecedented health crisis.