Preckwinkle defends firing of county health department chief during pandemic

The Cook County Board president said Dr. Terry Mason was great at public education and outreach, but what was needed is “strong operational leadership.”

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Dr. Terry Mason, chief operating officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health, right, along with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, left.

Dr. Terry Mason, former chief operating officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health, right, along with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, left, in March.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Dr. Terry Mason was “very good at public education and outreach” but not so much at “strong operational leadership,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Friday, explaining her decision to fire the county health department chief in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mason’s firing has raised eyebrows because he was the man in charge of the county’s response to the pandemic.

He’s the former Chicago health commissioner who joined county government, first as chief medical officer then as chief operating officer.

Last week, Mason was abruptly replaced on an interim basis by Drs. Kiran Joshi and Rachel Rubin. Both have been senior medical officers at the county department since 2014 and members of the medical staff at Stroger Hospital.

At the time, Preckwinkle would only say that Mason had been “terminated.” She heightened the drama on a Friday — when politicians routinely bury bad news — by announcing that she was closing the emergency room at Provident Hospital for a month to figure out a better way to handle the “large volume of patients” and the “challenges of a pandemic” at the South Side hospital.

A week later, Preckwinkle both explained and defended her decision to fire Mason.

He is the third high-ranking health official to be cut from county government in recent months.

“There’s no good time to make high-profile personnel decisions. I’m very grateful to Terry Mason for his service to the county. He’s a very good public educator, [and with] outreach work — particularly to the African American community. Reminding us of the ... hyper-tension and heart disease that plague our communities and what we can do ourselves to mitigate some of the impacts of those diseases.

“This is a time, however, when we need strong operational leadership. And Dr. Rachel Rubin and Dr. Kiran Joshi are co-leaders now of our Department of Health, and I have great confidence in them.”

Pressed to specify where Mason had fallen short in providing “strong operational leadership,” Preckwinkle said, “I’ve said all I’m gonna say on this. Why don’t you ask another question?”

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, told the Chicago Sun-Times last week he hadn’t been given a “coherent” explanation for why Mason was let go, saying all of his experiences with the former head of the public health department in the past 10 days had been positive.

“I always felt Terry Mason did a good job, and I always enjoyed working with him. But obviously Debra Carey and [chair of the health system’s board of directors] Hill Hammock felt it was time for a change,” Suffredin said.

Commissioner Sean Morrison, R-Palos Park, found the move “very alarming” considering the spread of coronavirus throughout the county.

“This coronavirus is very real, we haven’t even hit the apex yet, that’s a few weeks away,” Morrison said. “I think he did a good job.”

On Friday, Preckwinkle said she has talked to “every county commissioner a number of times over the last several weeks, and they have not shared that view with me.”

As for the emergency room closing at Provident Hospital, Preckwinkle said she had no other choice after one of the health care workers there tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We sent an infectious disease team over to Provident to look at the space to try to figure out what was going on there. What they determined is there was no way to practice social distancing given the way the emergency department was configured,” she said.

“So we said … we’ll close down the emergency room for a maximum of four weeks. We’ll try to get it done quickly. Tear out the walls and try to reconfigure the space so we can practice the social distancing that’s required in this pandemic …. We’re trying to make the emergency room a safe place for the people who work there and for the people who come there as patients.”

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