First published May 11, 2021.
As the new chief medical officer and state epidemiologist for community health at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), Dr. Jasmine Zapata says that she is really excited about her new role and that one of her goals will be to increase the diversity in the future health care and public health workforce.
“Also, one of my main priorities will be to focus on healing in our community,” Dr. Zapata tells Madison365. “We’ve been through so much in the last year or two. There has been a lot of focus on protecting our physical health – which is definitely important – but also focus on healing relationships with health care and public health systems and also working to heal emotionally, spiritually, and mentally from all that has gone on over the last year … and even before that.”
Dr. Zapata joins a handful of women of color in leadership positions at DHS, according to Jennifer Miller of the Wisconsin DHS communications team, that have included State Health Officer Dr. Sheri Johnson, Assistant Deputy Secretary Rea Holmes, from a couple of administrations ago, and Sandy Rowe, the current DHS Chief Legal Counsel.
“What really excited me about this position was that the vision of DHS is ‘everyone living their best life,’ and their mission is to protect and promote the health and safety of the people of Wisconsin,” Dr. Zapata says. “I felt like every aspect of my medicine and public health training, every person I ever connected with, everything just lined up for me to fit in well for this role. I was so excited because I felt like this was the next right step in my purpose.”
Over the first few months as the chief medical officer, Dr. Zapata says she will be busy meeting new people and focusing on her priorities.
“In general, the role of the chief medical officer and state epidemiologist for community health entails a few things,” she says. “One of the first things is to provide medical and public health consultation and leadership to bureau programs. I will also be providing expert guidance with a health equity lens during strategic planning, vision and policy efforts.”
Dr. Zapata will be the primary medical liaison with federal and state and local agencies and organizations.
“I will also have the opportunity to work closely with the state health officer and the division of public health to ensure that health policy and program resource allocation decisions are appropriate and that timely prevention actions are taken and that policy reflects sound public health principles and priorities,” Dr. Zapata says.
Dr. Zapata adds that she’s very excited that the work that she will be helping to do consultations and oversight for will deal with maternal and child health, newborn screening, opioids, injury and violence prevention, children and youth with special health care needs, chronic disease prevention, tobacco prevention and control and more.
Dr. Zapata brings a unique experience to her new role, not only as a well-known Madison-area pediatrician and board-certified preventive medicine/public health physician but also as an award-winning author, speaker, health empowerment champion.
“I think that will help me in this role because I’m tasked with giving advice and consultation regarding many policy efforts and public health initiatives. It’s very important when you are speaking into those things that you are hearing the voice of the community and are in touch with the pulse of the community,” Dr. Zapata says. “With all of my past work in the community and advocacy and empowerment, that will definitely shape the recommendations that I give.”
It will also help her as she tries to lessen the widespread racial health disparities in Wisconsin.
“This is an issue near and dear to my heart – the disparities we are working on combatting. I am some of those disparities. I am some of those statistics. My family members and my community … they exist as our everyday lived experience,” Dr. Zapata says. “So this job is more than just a job … we are literally fighting for our lives and it’s such an honor to be able to step into this role so I will be able to participate in making systems change and really doing everything I can to fight for health equity.”
One of the specific things as far as inequities that Dr. Zapata will be focused on, among many inequities, is maternal and child health equity.
“We know right now in Wisconsin that we have one of the highest Black infant mortality rates in the nation and one of the highest disparities in inequities in premature birth,” she says. “Even myself as a college-educated Black woman, the statistics show that college-educated Black women have two to three times higher rates of prematurity than white women who have not graduated high school.
“It is such an honor to now be able to work on a statewide level and even advocate for federal funding to be able to help with this issue in Wisconsin,” she adds.