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Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s coronavirus point person, has chased disease outbreaks worldwide

She’s been places only an infectious diseases expert would embrace, like at the start of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa, and says, ‘I think about: Have we done enough?’

Dr. Allison Arwady, flanked by elected and health officials, giving the daily update on coronavirus in Chicago.
Dr. Allison Arwady, flanked by elected and health officials, giving the daily update on coronavirus in Chicago.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Dr. Allison Arwady’s typical day this past week began at 6 a.m., scrolling through an “out-of-control” email inbox.

Then, she’d start taking calls. One would be about someone being tested for the new coronavirus that’s now become a worldwide pandemic. A conference call with her staff would follow. Then a roundtable discussion.

By 1:30 p.m., she’d also briefed aldermen on the city’s response to the virus.

And how many times had the city’s commissioner of the Department of Public Health washed her hands?

Arwady pauses to consider then lets loose an explosive laugh and says, “Let’s see — three, I would say!”

Later in the week, she offers an update: “I’m washing my hands even more than I was even a few days ago!”

Arwady, with her let’s take a breath and keep things in perspective manner, has become the city’s face for all things coronavirus. It started Jan. 24, when she stood before an arc of TV cameras and reporters to announce the city’s first — and nation’s second — case of the virus.

Three weeks later, in Chinatown, she was urging people not to let “fear control your decisions.” She made a point of saying she was having lunch in a part of town that’s seen visitors dwindle over fears about the new virus, which first began its spread in Wuhan, China.

CLICK TO HEAR STEFANO ESPOSITO ON WCIU’S ‘THE JAM’

CLICK TO HEAR STEFANO ESPOSITO ON WCIU’S ‘THE JAM’
Click to hear Stefano Esposito talk about Dr. Allison Arwady on WCIU’S “The Jam.”

How is the woman who became the city’s public health commissioner in January — after holding that post in an acting role since last June — handling all of this?

“You can be calm when you’re confident in your team and in your plans and in your response,” says Arwady, 43, who grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan — her father a newspaper publisher, her mother a school teacher.

She has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a master’s from Columbia and got her medical degree at Yale. She not only got around the Ivy League, but she also got around the world as a student, going overseas alone for a college summer job updating travel guides.

Arwady has gone places only an infectious diseases expert would embrace. She was there, for instance, with a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team at the start of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in western Africa.

“I would have gear on, and we would need to be disinfecting [our] shoes, being very careful about not touching things,” Arwady says. “This was in a setting, to be perfectly frank, where there was not adequate personal protective equipment for the hospitals, broadly.”

Arwady’s father, a newspaper publisher in Springfield, Massachusetts, says his daughter always was fearless.

“She doesn’t bat an eyelash,” says George Arwady, who also has three other children, including Meredith Arwady, a contralto who has performed at opera houses worldwide.

He remembers how his daughter, before she’d even started medical school, was working at the tip of Africa, living in a Quonset hut: “My little five-foot daughter doing sex education in the poorest province of South Africa with a bullhorn.”

Allison Arwady also was a part of a CDC team that investigated the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome — MERS — outbreak in Saudi Arabia. And she spent about a year with the CDC in Botswana, working on HIV and tuberculosis.

“Tuberculosis is a disease I find absolutely fascinating,” she says, almost giddy. “I love tuberculosis.”

Dr. Allison Arwady discussing the latest on coronavirus Wednesday as Gov. J.B. Pritzker (left), Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other officials look on.
Dr. Allison Arwady discussing the latest on coronavirus Wednesday as Gov. J.B. Pritzker (left), Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other officials look on.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

She is fascinated — and appalled — by the infectious diseases she has studied.

“When the Ebola outbreak was happening, it was intellectually interesting, but it was also really terrible,” Arwady says. “It’s not like, ‘Yay, there’s a new disease!’ It’s like, ‘This is very worrisome, and we have to be really serious and aggressive about understanding what is going on with this disease.’ ”

Brian Richardson, a former deputy city health commissioner, isn’t surprised that Arwady, a friend, is now stepping forward and answering questions.

“Because she’s just that damn smart, and she’s that damn good,” says Richardson, now Midwest regional director of the gay rights advocacy group Lambda Legal.

Dr. John Jay Shannon, who until last year was chief executive officer of Cook County’s health arm, says that even in an era in which public health’s emphasis generally has shifted from its communicable disease roots, it’s still vital to have people like Arwady who have that expertise.

“That kind of direct experience and working with the CDC, that’s very, very valuable training,” Shannon says.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), a past critic, says Arwady has been a capable leader in the city’s response to the virus.

Last October, Arwady infuriated Ramirez-Rosa and several other aldermen when, during her nomination hearing, she acknowledged that 200,000 Chicagoans need mental health care — but argued that reopening shuttered city clinics isn’t the answer.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa.
Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Ramirez-Rosa says his differences with Arwady are over “policy” and “vision.”

But he says, “Dr. Arwady is a very competent and prepared individual.”

So much so, Richardson says, “It’s clear to the elected officials that she is someone who knows what she’s doing, too. So they are happy to pass the microphone to her.”

Arwady says people have begun to recognize her — and ask about coronavirus.

“I can’t walk down the street without somebody asking me should they fly here and should they go here, and ‘I have this underlying condition, and what should I being doing?’ ” she says.

Arwady doesn’t have children. But that doesn’t keep her from dispensing motherly advice.

“I made sure my nieces and nephews had all really gotten their flu shots,” she says. “I called their mothers.”

What advice is she giving to her own extended family?

“The things we’re recommending for the general public are the same things I recommend to my family and the same things that I’m doing myself,” Arwady says.

In the increasingly rare moments when she’s not thinking about public health, Arwady, who is single, sees patients once a week. She does pottery. And she can be found leading river and walking tours of Chicago architecture.

“I do a public health spin,” she says. “I talk about reversing the river. I talk about the public health implications of what the Great Chicago Fire was.”

She’s clearly not intimidated by a crowd, be it tourists or reporters. But is there anything that keeps Arwady awake at night?

“I think about: Have we done enough?” she says. “We’ve done all that we can think of to do. And we’re doing more every day. But I’m always thinking ahead about all the potential scenarios, including worst-case scenarios.”

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