Chicago health board asks mayor not to fire commssioner Arwady

The Chicago Board of Health is asking Mayor Brandon Johnson to keep the city’s public health commissioner in her post following his campaign promise to replace her.

Dr. Allison Arwady was appointed by Johnson’s predecessor and became the public face of Chicago’s COVID-19 response, but she also disappointed some progressives.

The nine-member health advisory panel convened a special meeting Thursday evening where the seven members present members unanimously pledged their support for Arwady, who to some was known for her unflappable assurances as Chicago’s COVID czar. But others have said she was too hasty in loosening pandemic restrictions, especially reopening public schools, while failing to uphold activist demands regarding environmental permitting and mental health services.

The Board of Health agreed to send a letter requesting that Johnson keep Arwady after lauding her public health credentials and successes leading the city’s coronavirus regulations and vaccination drive.

Board members praised Arwady’s professionalism, expertise and ability to stay levelheaded amid rising hostility toward public health experts.

Dr. Horace Smith, a board member and physician at Lurie Children’s Hospital, noted Arwady’s understanding of the “urban setting.”

“I’ll say it over and over and over again, because if we’re serious about making changes, the people who are the most vulnerable, I believe, deserve the most attention,” said Smith. “I have confidence in the present commissioner, that she has that sense of it, especially the last couple of years, going through what she’s gone through.”

Board member Óscar Iván Zambrano, a director at Advocate Aurora Health, concurred with Smith’s emphasis on racial equity while touting the department’s record in the last four years as one that is “a little ahead of society.” He then stressed the importance of sticking to science when deciding on the city’s next public health commissioner.

“It has to be based on science, and it has to be based on data. And that is not an area that we can afford to make political,” he said, adding that he hopes Johnson weighs the value of maintaining “continuity” as he mulls whether to keep Arwady.

But he and other board members also cast the letter to the new mayor as less of a demand than a recommendation that also includes a list of attributes they wish to see in the next health commissioner, such as focus on racial equity, ability to manage a large governmental organization and transparency.

“It’s not political, it’s apolitical,” Iván Zambrano said. “It is technical, and it’s based on facts and accomplishments.”

As a mayoral candidate and then a Chicago Teachers Union organizer, Johnson vowed to remove Arwady from his cabinet, saying that he and Arwady “have different views of public health, and so, no, she will not stay on in my administration.”

But since he took office May 15, Johnson has not installed a new public health leader and instead stressed he wanted the remaining department heads to stay on for a few months while the new administration gets its bearings. Firing Arwady has also been a challenge for Johnson as he hasn’t been able to find a replacement.

Arwady, meanwhile, has been angling to stay in her job. But many of the mayor’s progressive allies in City Council and beyond have recently rallied behind his goal of reopening the public mental health clinics shuttered years ago by ex-Mayor Rahm Emanuel — an issue that Arwady caught some early grief during the tenure of previous mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Lightfoot appointed Arwady in 2019, with progressive aldermen briefly holding up her confirmation over her stance against reopening the mental health clinics. Under Arwady, the department preferred to work instead with private mental health providers.

Still, Arwady remained relatively obscure to the public until March 2020.

As the nation’s third-largest city shut down because of COVID-19, Arwady became a household name among Chicagoans with regular streamed news conferences and Facebook Live sessions that broke down the coronavirus, urged vaccination, explained evolving restrictions and provided guidance on masking and social distancing. She sought to focus her approach on racial equity, such as prioritizing predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods for vaccination distribution and sending canvassers to door knock to combat vaccine hesitancy.

However, the goodwill earned from Lightfoot and Arwady after assuming the role of a COVID-fighting dynamic duo soured early on in the first year of the pandemic, as some grew weary of stay-at-home orders, while others felt they were moving too fast to reopen the city. That tension most severely came to a head when the administration moved to bring students back to Chicago Public Schools classrooms after months of remote learning.

The CTU vehemently fought those efforts and succeeded in forcing multiple delays. And throughout these labor disputes, Arwady often appeared more comfortable than Lightfoot at the microphone addressing thorny questions during news conferences centered on the back-and-forth between the city and the teachers union.

Another realm in which Arwady clashed with progressives was over a scrap shredder that was seeking a permit from the public health department to open on the Southeast Side. Ultimately, the Lightfoot administration reversed course and rejected the application from Reserve Management Group — despite brokering a deal with the Ohio-based company to move operations to a spot along the Calumet River after it left Lincoln Park on the North Side. That was following protracted outcry by community activists over pollution concerns and environmental racism, given that the new neighborhood is predominantly Latino, while Lincoln Park is mostly white.

Chicago Tribune’s Gregory Royal Pratt contributed.

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