City’s health chief ‘looking forward to the conversation’ about retaining post under new mayor

Dr. Allison Arwady told the Sun-Times she wants to stay on, but Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson has voiced concerns about the way Chicago Public Schools were reopened during the pandemic.

SHARE City’s health chief ‘looking forward to the conversation’ about retaining post under new mayor
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, would like to keep her job but it’s unclear whether Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson will agree.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, would like to keep her job but it’s unclear whether Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson will agree.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Dr. Allison Arwady, an infectious disease expert and pediatrician who guided Chicago through the COVID-19 pandemic, wants to keep her job as the city’s public health boss.

But her rifts with the Chicago Teachers Union, a major backer of Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, may be an impediment.

In a debate before the April 4 runoff election, Johnson was adamant that he wasn’t going to keep Arwady when he takes office next month. He’s since said in interviews that he will sit down with her, but he also noted displeasure about her role in sending students back to Chicago Public Schools amid COVID-19 concerns.

Analysis bug

Analysis

The two have never met, Arwady said.

Chicago’s public health commissioner plays a vital role, overseeing the handling of everything from opioid addiction, HIV and other infectious diseases to mental illness, environmental protection and a slew of other issues.

La Voz Sidebar

Lea este artículo en español en La Voz Chicago, la sección bilingüe del Sun-Times.
la-voz-cover-photo-2.png

Arwady, 46, says she can outline for Johnson her plan to improve access to health care and lengthen the life expectancy of Chicagoans who live on the city’s South and West sides.

“I think in many ways the values that he has really laid out in his campaign are the values of the Chicago Department of Public Health,” Arwady said in an interview after a recent event in Austin.

A number of doctors and other health experts give Arwady high marks for her leadership during the pandemic, something that she touts.

Dr. Allison Arwady provides an update on COVID-19 cases and data last year.

Dr. Allison Arwady provides an update on COVID-19 cases and data last year.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times file

“It’s hard to praise any pandemic response,” said Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president for community health equity at Rush University Medical Center. “But Chicago and Illinois had among the best of any throughout the pandemic.”

Ansell said he has “nothing but admiration” for Arwady and lauded her efforts to protect many homeless people from being infected with COVID-19.

But aspects of the pandemic response also weigh against the Yale-educated doctor and former epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot after serving as the city’s chief medical officer, Arwady enraged the teachers’ union with her plans to send CPS students back to class during the pandemic. At one point, Lightfoot locked teachers out of their online classrooms and threatened to withhold their pay unless they returned to their classrooms.

Students protest outside the Chicago Public Schools headquarters last year during a district-wide walkout to demand Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Department of Public Health Dr. Allison Arwady and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez include them in the conversation about COVID-19 safety in schools.

Students protest outside the Chicago Public Schools headquarters last year during a district-wide walkout to demand Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Department of Public Health Dr. Allison Arwady and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez include them in the conversation about COVID-19 safety in schools.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

The bitter fights between the Lightfoot administration and teachers lingered throughout the mayoral campaign. Union officials declined to comment on whether they think Arwady should be kept on.

Arwady acknowledges the rift with the teachers union, calling them “differences of opinion.”

Separately, some doctors say her department could have better addressed the inequities in the health care system that led to higher hospitalizations and deaths in the Black and Brown communities and low uptake in vaccinations, especially on the South Side.

Black Chicagoans accounted for almost half of the deaths and hospitalizations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, yet they make up just one-third of the city’s population.

Dr. Monica Peek, University of Chicago professor for health justice of medicine, said she gives the city a B grade for its response compared to other U.S. cities.

But the glaring inequities weren’t thoroughly addressed, she said.

“You can’t plan for disaster preparedness in general,” Peek said. “You have to plan for equity in particular. If you don’t have that, you have inequity.”

Dr. Allison Arwady speaks to reporters during a news conference at City Hall last year.

Dr. Allison Arwady speaks to reporters during a news conference at City Hall last year.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Mental health will almost certainly be a topic for Arwady and Johnson to discuss as well.

Johnson said he will reopen the city’s six mental health clinics, which were closed under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and will work to improve care overall.

Under Lightfoot, who also promised to reopen the clinics, Arwady pursued a different approach by partnering with nonprofit health providers. She said she’s open to city-run clinics but said the challenge of serving tens of thousands of patients is too big for a half- dozen facilities.

On another front, Arwady was the target of community and environmental groups’ protests — including a demonstration in front of her home that led to several arrests — as she was urged to deny an operating permit for a Southeast Side metal-shredding operation. Ultimately, she denied the permit. A citywide environmental impact study began last year.

She says the city has made progress on health equity issues and environmental justice, and she’s proud of her department.

“I am hopeful to stay on in my role. I’m really proud of the ways we’ve been driving progressive health care, working on closing the racial life expectancy gap,” Arwady said. “I’m looking forward to the conversation.”

If things don’t work out, she said, “I’m committed to public health. If I’m not doing it here, I’ll be doing it somewhere else.”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot stands behind Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady as she talks during a news conference in 2021.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot stands behind Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady as she talks during a news conference in 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

The Latest
Court documents and police records offer more details about the man killed last month in a shootout with police in Humboldt Park.
She thought the backlash from her fans was “hilarious at first — and then they hurt my feelings.”
The new uniform features light blue coloring, silver piping and a white gradient throughout that it meant to exemplify “infinite possibilities.”
Before sentencing Helen G. Caldwell, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly said: “The only difference between Ms. Caldwell and a bank robber is that she didn’t have a mask and a gun.”
The vehicle crashed into the toll booth near Barrington Road and burst into flames, according to police.