She’s managing Milwaukee’s public health crisis. Here’s why Dr. Kowalik says communities of color are being hit hardest
The best way to counter the pandemic is with information and knowledge. I spoke with Dr. Jeanette Kowalik, Milwaukee’s Commissioner of Health, for an update on how the city is responding to COVID-19.
“There’s no dollar amount you can assign to someone’s life,” Dr. Kowalik said. “Once someone’s gone there’s no bringing them back. So this is what this is about, it’s about saving lives.”
Gov. Tony Evers has extended Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order through May 26, but Dr. Kowalik says it will be longer than that before business resumes as usual.
“We will never be the same after this, this is a society-changing event,” Dr. Kowalik says. “We wouldn’t just say, ‘Here’s the date, go back to normal.’ There would be a need to still limit the size of gatherings and look at the types of gatherings that would be allowed.”
Under Wisconsin’s “Badger Bounce Back” Plan, the state would reopen in phases as certain conditions are met. One of those conditions is a 14-day downward trend in new cases of COVID-19; another is increased testing. Previous testing guidelines had limited tests to patients who were especially vulnerable or who had known exposure to the virus, but current guidelines now allow anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 to be tested.
COVID-19 symptoms can range from sore throat, body aches, fever, chills and cough to stomach and gastrointestinal issues as well as a loss of taste and smell.
According to data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the state of Wisconsin alone there have been 7,660 cases, and COVID-19 outbreaks disproportionately affect communities of color due to underlying health, social and economic disparities.
“The irony of this is Milwaukee was the first jurisdictions that began tracking the impact of COVID-19 by race and ethnicity,” said Dr. Kowalik. “Once we started reviewing the data in detail we were like, ‘There is something going on we need to intervene.'”
Normally outbreaks are associated with hot spots, with the disease spreading through areas where people are gathered in close proximity. However, as other jurisdictions shared their collected data other correlations began to emerge.
Dr. Kowalik said in cities with a history of redlining and segregation, the spread of COVID-19 had associated heat maps for lead poisoning, infant mortality and violence.
“This is basically magnifying the effects of racism,” said Dr. Kowalik. “We are not analyzing or sharing the impact of COVID-19 by race and ethnicity. We are magnifying the impact of racism on people and how these policies and practices have played out.”
“What has occurred here is something that we will continue to experience if it’s not fixed once and for all,” said Dr. Kowalik. “All of the sectors will have to come together to dismantle and recreate a system that is going to finally address the inequities we have across the country.”
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