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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Milwaukee Health Department Reassures Aldermen About Childhood Lead Program – Once Again

Susan Bence
Milwaukee Health Department leaders - Angela Hagy, Jeanette Kowalik & Michael Stevenson - addressed the Public Safety and Health Committee Thursday.

For months Milwaukee’s health department has been trying to dig itself out of a muddle, while city leaders continue to try to figure out what went wrong.

Problems became public in early 2018 when health commissioner Bevan Baker resigned. At the same time, the community learned that the childhood lead program – long a source of pride among city leaders – was in disarray.

READ: Milwaukee Health Dept. 'Failed to Ensure Adequate Notification' of Elevated Lead Levels in Kids

Thursday the Public Safety and Health Committee wanted to hear the department’s plan for distributing water filters – a short-term fix to protect families from lead exposure, and perhaps even more importantly, how it is serving families whose children test high for lead.

When a child’s blood lead levels test between 5 and 19.9, families receive a letter from the health department. They also qualify for a free water filter and for a lead-safe home kit – more on that kit later.

Angela Hagy, director of disease control and environmental control, says a nurse is assigned to a family when children test higher - 20 to 39.9.

“It’s also important to note that at the 20 and above level is where it is required under statute. They get a letter, they get nurse case management, they get environmental follow-up,” Hagy says.

She says the nurse acts as the family’s partner. “The nurse will try to connect them on whatever difficulties they family is having. That nurse will partner with that family until that child’s blood lead level drops to below 15 and you have to have two results below that 15 level,” Hagy adds. “So it could be a year or more worth of follow-up."

Committee member Alderwoman Chantia Lewis asked if there are enough nurses to fill that need. “So how many cases per nurse are we looking at?” Lewis asks.

Angela Hagy says seven nurses are handling a total of 190 active cases. “But those cases aren’t distributed evenly because five of those nurses are new so we have to take all of these cases that are disproportionately on our seasoned staff, spread them out to the existing staff as we get them up and trained,” she explains.

As nurses are mobilized, so are lead risk assessors. Brandon Stinson is one of 12 in the department.

Stinson showed aldermen photos illustrating a temporary fix risk assessors sometimes carry out on home visits.

One photo showed a gaping hole in a wall where lead paint was exposed. In the other, the hole has been carefully covered with duct tape. That buys time until a certified contractor is called in.

Credit Milwaukee Health Department
One of the common hazards lead risk assessor Brandon Stinson shared with the committee.

Stinson’s next example brought forth an immediate reaction: “On the right you have we a photo of chipping and peeling paint on the ceiling of a room,” Stinson says.

Alderwoman Chantia Lewis appeared shocked. “So this right here, someone’s actually living in this,” Lewis asks.

“Oh yeah, we see it often,” Stinson replies.

Lewis wanted to know, “What repercussions do the owners have for having a house like this – I mean their lack of not maintaining it,” she added, “This is unacceptable.”

There were no ready answers.

Short- term, the health department is able to pay to remediate some homes, according to Michael Stevenson with the department’s office of policy.

“In our response to what happened a year and a half ago, as we are addressing the backlog we’re trying to make these homes as lead-safe as quickly so we are leveraging our HUD dollars and our CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) dollars to make sure kids are living in safe homes,” Stevenson says.

Alderwoman Milele Coggs wanted to talk about that “backlog”. It refers to the children who tested high for lead fell between the cracks when the health department’s lead program was in shambles.

READ: State Report Blasts Milwaukee's Performance in Addressing Childhood Lead Exposure Risks

Coggs asked of 190 cases of lead poisoned children the health department is working on, “How many of them are backlogged and how many of them are more recent,” she asks.

“We’re planning a comprehensive report that we’ll hopefully report out next cycle, giving you a status report of the numbers. And we’re happy to have a conversation individually as well,” Michael Stevenson responds.

Coggs was not pleased with Stevenson’s response

“I think it should be less challenging to ask a simple question like I just asked. So I want to get to a place where whatever process you develop we can pull this information really easily,” Coggs says.

Credit Susan Bence
Jean Schultz (center) showed the committee the new lead-safe kit the health department will be sharing with Milwaukee families.

If there was a ray of hope, it came as late in meeting when Jean Schultz introduced herself.

“ I’m an environmental health services with the health program and I kind of oversee how our filter distribution program works,” Schultz says.

This is where the a lead-safe home kit comes in.  It's a new component of the health department's Lead-Safe Milwaukeeinitiative.

“There’s going to be gloves, duct tape, a Swiffer, baby wipes, the yellow thing is a garbage bag and then there will be a water filter in them as well,” Schultz says.

She told the committee that new educational materials – along with a video - will clearly explain how families how to use the kit’s contents to clean their homes in a lead-safe manner.

“I’m going to create all of these different languages – Spanish, Hmong, Bermese, so we can definitely reach all of the populations in our city,” she explains.

Schultz bounded out of the meeting room, appearing ready to tackle the world. She told me, that until recently hers was a one-person initiative. But recently two brand-new staffers have joined her and she’ll have two interns for the summer.

Schultz says her team along with community partners will reach a lot of families. 

This evening (April 26, 2019)  Schultz will be distributing kits at the COA Goldin Center (2320 West Burleigh) from 4:30-7:00.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.