Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik resigns; 'I am limited due to factors that are out of my control'

NOW: Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik resigns; ’I am limited due to factors that are out of my control’

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik will leave her job with the Milwaukee Health Department and return to Washington, D.C., where she will join Trust for America's Health, a health policy organization. 

The announcement was made Wednesday, Sept. 2. 

Kowalik was brought in to fix a department in crisis in 2018. The prior commissioner left over serious problems with the city's lead pipe program.

According to a news release, Kowalik has been the Commissioner of Health for the City of Milwaukee 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 13th, 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 has issued several orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and save lives.

Kowalik wrote in a news release: 

“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. 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. I am excited to join TFAH’s leadership team as Director of Policy Development and return to Washington D.C. My experience as a local Health Officer will be an asset to policy development at TFAH. I am confident that the MHD leadership team, which consists of five Deputy Commissioners and a Chief of Staff, are highly competent and able to continue to manage the department in my absence. 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.”

The Health Board's president sent a statement saying Kowalik made significant strides and improved residents' health. However, her resignation comes as a shock.

 "It was a surprise," Alderman Mark Borowski said. "We just reconfirmed her for another four years about a month or so ago."

Borkowski says he supported Kowalik even as she and the city got lots of pressure over masks and the city's COVID-19 reopening plans. He says he will look to her team to keep the department running.

"We're all replaceable," he said. "We got very, very good people and so, next person up."

Milwaukee Health Board member Ruthie Weatherly says she will miss Kowaliks.

"We worked very well together over the last year and it's disappointing the timing of COVID-19 as we were sort of just hitting our stride," Weatherly said. "She came to the Health Department at a very difficult time." 

Weatherly said she supports Kowalik's decision, even though it means seeing her leave Milwaukee for D.C.

"I'm sure that these decisions have been difficult the last couple of weeks for her to decide what's next," she said.

“I am grateful to Commissioner Kowalik for her dedication and leadership, especially during this pandemic. 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.” – Mayor Tom Barrett, City of Milwaukee.

“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. She has created a strong foundation for whoever becomes the next Commissioner. I hope that her successor has the same foresight, decisiveness, dedication to public health, and love for Milwaukee as Dr. Kowalik." - Caroline Gomez- Tom, City of Milwaukee Board of Health President.

TFAH is a non-partisan public health policy, research and advocacy organization that envisions a nation that values the health and well-being of all and where prevention and health equity are foundational to policymaking at all levels of society.

You can read the full joint statement below from Alderman Cavalier Johnson, Alderman Nik Kovac, AldermanKhalif J. Rainey, Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa, Alderwoman Chantia Lewis,Alderman Michael J. Murphy, Alderman Mark A. Borkowski, Alderman José G.Pérez, Alderman Scott Spiker and Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic. 

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