Milwaukee health official resigns, points to racist threats on the job 

Less than a week after she submitted her resignation as Milwaukee's health commissioner, Jeanette Kowalik, PhD, says that systemic racism, threats and "backlash against common sense and science" contributed to her departure. 

Dr. Kowalik wrote a column for The Daily Beast detailing her professional experience since returning to her hometown in fall 2018 to head the Milwaukee Health Department as the only Black woman health officer in the state.

Milwaukee has been deemed the most racially segregated metro area in the country. This problem, paired with insufficient public health funding, weakened the agency's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dr. Kowalik.

Milwaukee's health department was among the first in the U.S. to break COVID-19 data down by race and ethnicity. "Doing so enabled us to determine that the first hot spot was in our African-American community. Actually, it was in the same neighborhood where I grew up — Sherman Park," she wrote. "I was horrified to see this, and felt helpless because we couldn't stop it from happening so quickly. We simply did not have the resources." 

She noted that until private donors came through, the department did not have the funds for widespread public health messaging. Hospitals and federally qualified health centers took on testing, which the department could not deliver due to a lack of staff and EHR. 

"As much as I love my hometown, I believe that I am limited due to factors that are out of my control," she said in her resignation statement Sept. 2, referencing obstacles to testing, public health orders, mask messaging and limits on public gatherings as part of the pandemic response. 

Dr. Kowalik also said she faced anti-immigration, racist threats at work, beginning in spring 2019. "Like some other health officials across the country, I received threats of harm mailed to my office prior to COVID-19 and of course after — among them many emails authored by far-right white supremacists," she wrote for The Daily Beast. 

During a county call this week reported by ABC News affiliate WISN 12, Dr. Kowalik said these threats increased after Milwaukee became the first city in the U.S. to declare racism a public health crisis in fall 2019. "Many people rallied behind us for doing that, but there are still many people angry by that, who feel they are under attack and their way of life is being threatened," she said on the call. 

Dr. Kowalik's last day with Milwaukee's health department is Sept. 22. She will then begin work with a think tank in Washington, D.C., where she will do "national health policy work with an equity lens," she wrote for The Daily Beast.

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