Future uncertain for Arwady under incoming Johnson administration

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 Arwady, but he has also noted displeasure over her role sending students back to Chicago Public Schools amid COVID concerns.

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.

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.

"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 efforts to protect many homeless people from being infected with COVID.

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 on plans to send CPS students back to classes during the pandemic. At one point, Lightfoot locked teachers out of their online classrooms and threatened to withhold their pay unless they returned to the classrooms.

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 deaths and hospitalizations throughout the COVID 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 as compared with other cites across the U.S.

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."

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 the 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.