Arwady decries her abrupt firing — and warns it could hurt search for Chicago’s next health chief

In an interview with NBC Chicago, former city health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said it was ‘disturbing’ that she was fired without ever meeting with Mayor Johnson or saying goodbye to her staff.

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Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady news conference

Dr. Allison Arwady, pictured in 2021, spoke publicly Monday for the first time after she was abruptly fired by Mayor Brandon Johnson.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

In her first interview since being ousted as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, Dr. Allison Arwady said the manner in which she was fired was “unnecessarily destabilizing” to the city’s public health department.

Arwady said she respected Mayor Brandon Johnson’s right to name his own public health commissioner, but was concerned the abrupt manner of her termination would make it harder to attract a successor with the necessary background and expertise to do the job.

She received a phone call from Rich Guidice, Johnson’s chief of staff, Friday evening and was told in a meeting that she was being terminated, Arwady said in an interview Monday with NBC5 Chicago’s Mary Ann Ahern.

“I said that is not a major surprise at this point, just knowing the mayor, of course, has the opportunity to bring on whomever he wants, but then what really was disturbing to me is I said, ‘Let’s talk timeline,’ and he said, ‘It’s effective immediately,’” Arwady said in the interview.

Arwady, who became a prominent face of the city through frequent news conferences during the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic, was appointed to the position by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

She said Johnson didn’t meet with her prior to her firing, and that her abrupt dismissal didn’t allow her an opportunity to say goodbye to her staff.

“I kept hoping that there’d be an opportunity to talk with him and meet with him, explain the work that the department does,” Arwady said, adding that despite being in some of the same cabinet meetings as Johnson, the two “never exchanged three words.”

She said the outcome was “not a surprise, but the manner of it, I think, was unnecessarily destabilizing to my department.”

“I’m respectful of this decision. I’m just concerned that the way it was made will actually make it harder to bring in a new commissioner, like someone who really understands public health and has the expertise and the knowledge to lead this department.”

The public health commissioner oversees a number of programs that include mental health, opioid addiction, HIV and other infectious diseases, and environmental protection.

During a debate shortly before the April runoff election, Johnson, a former CPS teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer, said he would fire Arwady if he was elected.

He walked back that statement in later interviews, saying he would meet with her before making a decision, but noted his displeasure about her role in reopening Chicago Public Schools amid pandemic safety concerns.

At an unrelated news conference Monday, Johnson dodged questions from reporters about Arwady’s firing and whether the dismissal was “payback” for her push to reopen schools in February 2021, sooner than when the CTU wanted them open.

In the interview with NBC Chicago, Arwady said she didn’t know of any intentional reasoning behind her firing and that she understood the mayor’s desire to make his own appointment for the job.

In a Twitter thread posted Friday evening, Arwady described her tenure leading the city health agency as the “best chapter of her life (so far),” saying it was “critical” that the city’s health department receive the funding it needed to “remain strong.”

“My top priority has always been protecting the health of all Chicagoans,” Arwady wrote. “Public health must always be driven by science and medicine, and never politics … As a physician and public health leader, my work to advance health, equity, and justice, particularly for those on the margins, will continue.”

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