Commissioner Kawalik credits her childhood upbringing with preparing her for public service and the demands of her current position. She said, “I was the youngest of 12, so I learned early on about service and found joy in helping others.”
The World Health Organization defines public health as a state of physical, mental, and social well being. It is the science of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts of society.
Soon after the first case of COVID-19 was documented in Milwaukee County, Kowalik sought counsel from her mentor and friend, Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, MD, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association. Recalling that conversation, she said, “We talked about the focus and energy I would need. He told me that once the first case was reported, everything will be in hyperdrive. His most crucial advice was that I should always lead with science and my heart.”
Navigating the thin line of transparency with the public’s right to know the truth is a balancing act required to prevent panic. Nonetheless, Kowalik finds it a challenging but essential piece of maintaining public trust. “We have experienced issues due to having the most cases and deaths in the state. The volume of work is tremendous. So we have been reassigning staff and working across city departments. We also have many volunteers through a system called WEAVR who help. Naturally, representatives of state departments assume a significant role. We are also working through a joint city/county structure with the Unified Emergency Operations Center or UEOC, along with many community partners to ensure strong responses.
The health department staff have been phenomenal since day one of this crisis. Our team of professionals includes an Emergency Manager, four Deputy Commissioners, the Director of Clinic Operations, human resources, finance and administration managers, and the lab director. Likewise, my Chief of Staff, Lilliann Paine, has been amazing, helping us to connect to the right people and address concerns from the community so we can inform the UEOC to ensure those with the greatest need are getting help. Lastly, we have connections to other health departments across the country to learn and strategize what is working and what is not.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has also pulled the scabs off the festering sores of racism and resuscitated discussion about inequities and disparities plus how the culture of exclusion victimizes the poor. Again, the painful reality is that people of color are bearing the brunt of financial hardships, deaths, mental health crisis, and other disruptions in their quest for the ‘basic’ qualities of life. All of this raises the question when COVID no longer demands our primary focus will attention shift to genuinely resolving these concerns, or will life return to business as usual? “It’s long overdue” was the Commissioner’s response. “We see the effects of racism, segregation, and redlining playing out in the COVID-19 pandemic across the country. We need to identify what can be changed in short order to save more lives. What needs to be accomplished long term is clear, namely, dismantling of the systems designed to oppress.”
It is difficult to imagine the layers of expertise demanded by a crisis of this magnitude. “Thankfully, I had significant crisis management training working in various capacities during the Ebola, H1N1 flu pandemics, and measles outbreak,” said Kowalik.
“This COVID-19 pandemic has taught me to conserve energy, stay organized, and maintain detailed plans that include multiple options for problems. These things are just as important as being at the table and making decisions throughout the thick of the crisis. Similarly, journaling throughout this situation helps to inform best practices and crisis response in the future.”
Reflecting on personal growth experienced during this crisis, the Commissioner said, “Furthermore, I’ve learned significant lessons about myself. Specifically, I need to pay attention to the moment at hand but also be strategic in thinking about the long game. I’ve been reminded about the need to be real but also hopeful for the future. Finally, this crisis has revealed everyone’s real character, including my own. As a result, I’m leaning into my values and shaking off anyone or anything that does not align. I see patterns experienced before, but now I can better detect truth from falsehoods. I recenter on this daily.
“There have been times during this crisis when looking at different situations or required tasks; I think, Lord, how are you going to make this happen? Then I’m reminded of the bible story of Abraham and Sarah (Romans 4:19) and God’s unlimited power and manifestations of miracles. I’m convinced that despite appearances, God will push us through this, and use us as examples of his power and his glory. It’s about faith.
The Milwaukee Health Department 414.286.3521 | COVID-19 Questions? Call 211