Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

It’s 2018 all over again, maybe.

The Milwaukee Health Department confirmed Thursday that the family of multiple children who tested positive for elevated blood lead levels didn’t receive the required follow up when the level exceeded five parts per billion.

“Within the last 48 hours, it has come to our attention that some aspects of our Lead Program have been mismanaged,” said MHD chief of staff Myra Edwards in an email to the Common Council. “The affected children and their family have been contacted and corrective action has been, and will continue to be, taken to mitigate any further lead risk.”‘ The affected family lives in the city’s Bay View neighborhood according to MHD and the council.

“Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident and we call for a complete audit of every elevated blood lead level case we have at the city to ensure every Milwaukeean is safe,” said council members Marina Dimitrijevic, Cavalier Johnson, Jose G. Perez and JoCasta Zamarripa in a joint statement. “This (lead exposure) has been our city’s pandemic long before COVID-19 and we need to dedicate the same urgency and resources to eliminating it.”

The news of a failure is akin to the January 2018 revelation that hundreds of families were not receiving the necessary follow-up or interventions. In two cases, children receiving emergency chelation therapy (a drug-based process to remove lead from blood for the worst cases) were allowed to return to homes without any lead abatement follow up. The federal government halted the city’s childhood lead poisoning prevention program as a result of multiple issues, triggering Mayor Tom Barrett to announce the forced resignation of then-commissioner Bevan K. Baker. A series of text messages revealed Baker knew about the chelation problem as early as September 2017 and was engaged in a discussion on covering it up with a subordinate.

Environmental health field supervisor Richard Gaeta was fired and Lisa Lien, the home environmental health manager, chose to resign rather than be fired. Two additional employees in management, whose names were not released, were disciplined. An outside law firm involved in the management investigation found “an environment full of bullying and unprofessionalism which affected the effective functioning of the Health Department.”

But the scale of the 2021 problem is many orders of magnitude smaller at this point. And the people involved are almost entirely new.

Since Baker’s resignation the department has been led by interm commissioner Patricia McManus, commissioner Jeanette Kowalik, interim commissioner Marlaina Jackson and, since January, commissioner Kirsten Johnson.

In a statement, the health department said it learned of the issue on June 15th. “Commissioner Kirsten Johnson and deputy commissioner of environmental health Tyler Weber immediately asked for additional information and contacted the [Wisconsin Department of Health Services], the Common Council and Board of Health to inform them of their findings.” Weber joined the department earlier this year, replacing Claire Evers as deputy commissioner of environmental health. He previously worked for Johnson in Ozaukee County.

“Currently, we do not know of other problematic cases, outside of the Bay View case,” said the department. “An internal case review of every elevated blood lead level is planned, in addition to an investigation of staff involved with this family.”

The council members that issued the joint statement are calling for a move away from blood testing as the primary referral mechanism. Under the current system private providers test children’s blood lead levels with referrals made to the health department if follow up is needed.

More about the Lead Crisis

Read more about Lead Crisis here

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