Milwaukee Health Commissioner Steps Down, Cites Obstacles

Sep 3, 2020

Milwaukee’s health commissioner is quitting to take a new job, citing in part the partisan battles over how the coronavirus pandemic should best be managed.

Jeanette Kowalik is joining a national health policy think tank in Washington, D.C.

“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 her announcement.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Kowalik referenced obstacles to testing, public health orders, mask messaging and limits on public gatherings as part of the pandemic response. The newspaper said Kowalik made clear in an interview that she was referring to Republican state lawmakers and the conservative-controlled state Supreme Court, which has 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.”

Republican lawmakers brought a successful lawsuit before the state Supreme Court this spring ending Gov. Tony Evers' safer-at-home order designed to slow the spread of the virus. A conservative law firm has filed a lawsuit seeking to end the Evers mask mandate, which the Republican Senate majority leader has denounced.

Republicans have argued that Evers' administration was overstepping its authority with the orders.

Wisconsin has seen 1,142 COVID-19 related deaths to date, according to the state Department of Health Services. That death count is the 28th highest in the country overall and the 40th highest per capita at nearly 20 deaths per 100,000 people.

Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has decreased by nearly 7%. There were nearly 166 new cases per 100,000 people in Wisconsin over the past two weeks, which ranks 28th in the country for new cases per capita.

Milwaukee has been hard-hit by the coronavirus, especially among its minority population. Since the first coronavirus case was reported March 13, the city has reported more than 17,700 positive cases and more than 275 deaths.

Kowalik is the latest in a string of health officials nationwide who have left their jobs amid the pandemic.

Kowalik became health commissioner in late 2018 after her predecessor was pushed out over missteps involving a handful of programs, including treating and notifying children with possible lead poisoning.

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