Aug 15, 2023 - News

Chicago health chief Allison Arwady's abrupt ouster

Allison Arwady, former commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks about COVID-19 in 2022. Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

There's a leadership void in the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Driving the news: Mayor Brandon Johnson fired health commissioner Allison Arwady on Friday, a day after the Chicago Board of Health urged him to keep her in the post.

Why it matters: After leading the city through the pandemic, Arwady became Chicago's best-known health chief in recent memory.

Context: Despite Johnson's campaign vow to remove Arwady, some thought she might stick around, given her eagerness to stay and the mayor's post-victory statement acknowledging the importance of her expertise.

  • So the commissioner's firing late Friday seemed abrupt. Arwady suggested in a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, that she couldn't even say goodbye to her staff.
  • CDPH's second-in-command, chief medical officer Jennifer Seo, has also announced her resignation.
  • That leaves first deputy commissioner Fikirte Wagaw, who oversees CDPH finance and is not a doctor, in charge in the interim.

Backstory: A pediatrician by training, Arwady started at CDPH in 2015 and was appointed commissioner right before COVID hit the U.S.

  • She became a familiar face to Chicagoans by hosting live health briefings on social media nearly every Tuesday through the pandemic.

The intrigue: Other Lori Lightfoot-era commissioners have recently stepped down on their own timelines.

  • Arwady's unceremonious ouster right after the Board of Health endorsement is raising questions about whether it was a power play gone wrong.

Between the lines: Crain's posits that Johnson's main beef with Arwady involved not reopening public mental health clinics.

  • Others point to Johnson's strong ties to the Chicago Teachers Union, which clashed with Arwady and Lightfoot during the 2022 work stoppage over COVID safety.

What they're saying: The Johnson administration didn't respond to Axios questions about why Arwady was dismissed.

  • But when asked at a Monday press conference if it was connected to the CTU standoff, Johnson responded, "Transition is difficult for everyone. … I don't know how many times you're allowed to quote Tupac in a press conference, but you can't always go by the things that you hear. Real eyes, right, realize real lies."

The other side: "My top priority has always been protecting the health of all Chicagoans," Arwady said in a statement. "Public health must always be driven by science and medicine, and never politics."

What's ahead: The Johnson administration has not said when it will appoint a new commissioner, who will face continued health inequities and a likely uptick in COVID cases as schools reopen this month.

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