CHICAGO — Chicago’s former top doc is speaking out.
As commissioner of the Chicago’s Department of Public Health, Dr Allison Arwady helped citizens navigate the many unknowns during the Covid-19 pandemic, regularly facing the community and media to provide guidance and answers. And while she doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to her sudden firing from the post she loved, she says she’ll always be a champion for public health and patients.
“When I look back, I’m not thinking about the way it ended,” she said.
She was always on call. The internal medicine specialist who chose public health over private practice showed her competence and commitment during the rigors of Covid.
“It’s been really the honor of my life to be able to lead my team through this,” she said. “But it is a lot of the work that doesn’t get talked about as much that in many ways I am most proud of.”
That work includes programs to support maternal health, fight opioid addiction and boost mental health resources – all projects she and her team focused on while juggling the demands of the pandemic.
“We were the first, we put mental health professionals to be part of 9-1-1 response,” she said. “In the behavioral health space in the opioid crisis, we went from not even having a dedicated team to having Narcan in every public library, to having a hotline where people can call and get started same day on opioid treatment.”
Arwady would have liked more time but Chicago’s new mayor decided her time was up. Though Mayor Brandon Johnson wasn’t the one to deliver the bad news.
“In some ways I consider it a badge of honor. I have joined hundreds who lost their jobs because they made their decisions based on data. So much became politicized during Covid,” she said.
It was data that drove Arwady to encourage Chicago Public School teachers and students to return to the classroom in 2020, a stance then-Chicago Teachers Union organizer Johnson took issue with at the time.
“I put pediatricians, infectious disease doctors, epidemiologists looking at the data we had for kids and the people who took care of them,” Arwady said. “It was time. I would make that decision every time again even knowing it has had this consequence, right?”
When Canadian wildfire smoke shrouded the city, creating a significant public health threat, it became clear to Arwady.
“This is almost unprecedented to see this level, and I’m on the phone early, making sure we are moving quickly to craft health information,” she said. “For the three months where Mayor Johnson was in, I really was asked and directed to not appear publicly. … It is true that even at the emergency operations press conference, they didn’t want me. And I was not able to do any media interviews and neither was anybody on my team at that time.”
But public health is in her blood.
“I happen to be someone who my whole adult life has been really interested in infectious diseases and outbreaks,” she said.
Harvard, Columbia and Yale educated, Arwady spent several years with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, working with HIV and tuberculosis patients in Africa. She was on the ground when MERS landed in Saudi Arabia and during the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.
“You cannot just fund public health when the crisis comes,” she said. “We got an incredible influx of resources from the federal government during Covid and we needed it. But as that is running out I’m looking at a 68 percent drop in our budget. … The last thing I want to see is all of that infrastructure dismantled and my concern not just here in Chicago but across the country. As Covid thankfully is wanning, we’re going to forget about public health.”
But Arwady won’t forget Chicago.
“This is my home this is my city,” she said.
You’ll still find her along the Chicago River. She guided an architecture tour right after the interview. Educating others, she says, is still her calling.
She offered some reassurance about the latest surge in Covid cases, saying stay up to date on vaccines and count on the tools we have today that we did not have in 2020.
Her next steps? She’s not sure. Maybe some time off. But she says she will always raise her public health voice.