by Dr. Jeanette Kowalik, City of Milwaukee Commissioner of Health
We’ve been known that Milwaukee is segregated- this includes health. From higher infant mortality rates to shorter life expectancies, Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) in Milwaukee are impacted the most. On March 13th, Friday the 13th, COVID-19 began its assault on our community. We went from 1 case to now over 1000 in Milwaukee County in three weeks. Nearly all the initial deaths have come from our Black community. This is alarming but when we look at other health issues, we see similar disparities that are the result of racist policies and practices. More recently, the Spring Election was not delayed due to partisan politics, despite common sense and public health guidance. This stunt is harmful to us–it will increase our risk of getting COVID-19 leading to more sickness and death as well as suppress our right to vote in a safe way. As a Milwaukeean, I take these issues to heart.
I grew up in Sherman Park where the initial COVID-19 cases are most concentrated. We’ve seen this story before and it’s disheartening. COVID-19 infections are following similar patterns, paved by a set of social conditions and unfair systems that always put some of us on the front lines of disease. This crisis is a wake-up call that inequity puts us all at risk, and we all must step up for the health of our neighbors while we urge the federal government and other sectors to correct the wrongs of the past once and for all (e.g. reparations).
The solution here is clear: Stay home. Lay low. COVID-19 is in our neighborhoods, it’s spreading person to person, and you do not know who is infected. Staying home protects yourself, your family, and our whole community. When you must leave the house, ask yourself: is this worth putting myself at risk or potentially giving the virus to my loved ones? If you must, wash your hands and practice social distancing. COVID-19 discriminates by finding our neighbors who are still working to feed their families, who already may be battling chronic disease, who may not have a pantry full of food and supplies, or who are taking care of others. Even if you’re at low risk, you can stay home to protect your people.
As Commissioner of Health in this time of uncertainty, there’s one thing I know for sure: many of our families are taking this seriously and doing their best. Trust, we thank you for your efforts as this is only going to get more difficult in the coming weeks. We know home isn’t always safe or comfortable for those experiencing abuse, illness, or poverty. We know unemployment is stressing already stretched resources. We know fear can stoke racism and xenophobia. You may be feeling helpless, sad, or anxious to get back to routine. We’re not there yet. Our cases are projected to peak in late April, but hang tight for at least a solid month or two before we’re through this. If you are struggling at home or need housing, please reach out to your network for support or dial 2-1-1 for city resources to help you stay safe.
Your Milwaukee Health Department (MHD) exists for this challenge, among others. If you are screened and tested for COVID-19, insist your healthcare provider uses a local lab to ensure we get your lab results more quickly. Once MHD receives someone’s + lab result, the clock starts. Currently, public health nurses are working day and night to investigate “cases” or people that have COVID-19, and then finding all of their connections and notifying them. This is called “contact tracing,” which is how we map everyone who’s been in contact with a person who has COVID-19. Some cases have 1 contact and others can have up to 100! This is a very time consuming process but it’s necessary to slow the spread of disease. When we connect with these contacts, we tell them that they need to quarantine for 14 days and teach them how to check for symptoms if they develop.
When I accepted the call to return home to be the Commissioner of Health, I believed I was on a divine mission to serve the hometown that I love. As a Black woman at the helm in this moment in this city, COVID-19 is very personal and I am committed to fighting this together. COVID-19 is attacking our community. We mourn Lawrence, Lenard, Roderick, Ralph, Callie, Sheila, Carolyn, Tommie, Nola, and Robert and many others that were robbed of life due to COVID-19. We’re losing dads, teachers, basketball coaches, veterans, matriarchs. Despite the assault of COVID-19, our community is showing our resilience. We’re showing struggle isn’t new to us. And that we know how to push through hard times. We’re showing our power, our creativity, our joy, and our love.
If this experience teaches us one lesson, it’s how important our whole community is and that we have the ability to tap into the wisdom and energy of our ancestors to overcome adversity. Please check-in on each other. Be kind and compassionate. Peace!