The health commissioner was about to be reappointed, but has taken a new position in Washington DC.
Dr. Jeanette Kowalik, Milwaukee’s health commissioner heralded for her response to the coronavirus pandemic and work fighting systemic racism in Wisconsin’s largest city, announced Wednesday she is resigning from her position to work with a national health policy group.
The sudden resignation came as Kowalik was primed for reappointment by the Milwaukee Common Council. She is the latest major public health director to resign during the coronavirus pandemic as threats and political vitriol have inhibited adequate progress in the fight against COVID-19, leading to headline-grabbing resignations across the country.
“I believe that I am limited due to factors that are out of my control,” Kowalik said in her announcement. “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.”
She did not expand on the threats or limits to her response. People throughout the nation have issued death threats to health directors, and state and federal Republicans have sought to lift restrictions and mandates meant to stop the spread of coronavirus. Milwaukee remains under a mask mandate and stay-home order.
Milwaukee had about 17,800 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Wednesday morning, according to local health data. Wisconsin as a whole had more than 76,500, according to the Department of Health Services.
Kowalik will head to Washington D.C. to work as director of policy development for the Trust for America’s Health. She leaves her post in Milwaukee just two years after taking over.
Milwaukee was in the midst of a lead poisoning crisis when Kowalik took charge of the Milwaukee Health Department in 2018. More than 10 percent of children in the city had dangerous levels of lead in their bodies at the time, and many of those children were in low-income neighborhoods with predominantly residents of color.
Under Kowalik, Milwaukee became one of the first communities to declare racism as a public health crisis. Her department was also one of the first to track COVID-19 cases and deaths by race, which helped expose how the pandemic was disproportionately impacting Milwaukee’s communities of color—an unfortunate reality on display across the country.
“I am grateful to Commissioner Kowalik for her dedication and leadership, especially during this pandemic,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said in the resignation announcement. “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.”
Kowalik did not say when her final day will be. She and Barrett will hold a media briefing on Thursday, according to the announcement.
Kowalik said in her announcement that she is redirecting “my energy and skills to upstream approaches that will improve the health of millions of Americans.”