Wisconsin health chief: We made mistakes with COVID response

State official says she wouldn’t mandate masks.

Published: September 28, 2023 11:19pm

(The Center Square) -

The woman in charge of Wisconsin's Department of Health Services said public health managers in the state made mistakes in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak.

DHS Secretary Nominee Kirsten Johnson on Thursday defended the decisions she and other public health department leaders made during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020.

“We certainly made mistakes. Part of this is it was a novel virus, we didn't know what we didn't know, and we were making the best decision we could out of a host of bad decisions,” Johnson said.

Johnson has been tapped by Gov. Tony Evers to lead the state’s public health department. Her hearing on Thursday is part of her confirmation process.

Johnson began her public health career in Ozaukee County, before moving to Milwaukee's health department, where she left after an apparent disagreement with members of the city council. While in Milwaukee, Johnson was responsible for and drove the city's COVID response. That included lockdown orders, mask mandates, decisions to close businesses and forced social distancing.

“Would I make some of those same decisions today? Absolutely not. That said, we have a lot of tools that we didn't have previously,” she added.

Sen. Rachel Cabral-Guevara, R-Appleton, pressed Johnson for answers as to where she stands now on those COVID era restrictions.

“Do you support mandates of COVID vaccine for nurses, any health care professional, or teachers? Cabral-Guevara asked.

“No, I think it's recommended,” Johnson answered. “I think, again, that's part of people needing to evaluate their own risk.”

Johnson said she would “highly recommend everyone get vaccinated,” but she said, “it's a choice.”

“How do you feel about masks? Do you still feel that they are essential, and needed to be required in places in the state of Wisconsin where you can't utilize stores, or medical offices? Would you still require that [masks] that was recommended today?” Cabral-Guevara asked.

“No, I recommend people wear masks if they are vulnerable, if they've been exposed. But not mandated,” Johnson answered.

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