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Dr. Allison Arwady had said she wanted to stay on as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Dr. Allison Arwady had said she wanted to stay on as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Brian Rich

Chicago Public Health chief Dr. Allison Arwady handed her discharge papers — she says goodbye on Twitter

After months of lobbying to keep her job, Dr. Allison Arwady, the health commissioner who steered Chicago through the COVID-19 pandemic, was fired Friday without ever getting a chance to meet with Mayor Brandon Johnson.

The termination was confirmed by Ronnie Reese, Johnson’s spokesman.

Arwady was told of the decision shortly after 5 p.m., a source told the Sun-Times. She still has never met with Johnson, the source said.

Another source familiar with the situation said Rich Guidice, Johnson’s chief of staff, delivered the news to Arwady, who did not have a chance to say goodbye to her staff.

In a Twitter thread posted Friday evening, Arwady described her tenure leading the city health agency as the “best chapter of her life (so far),” saying it was “critical” that the city’s health department receive the funding it needed to “remain strong.”

“My top priority has always been protecting the health of all Chicagoans,” Arwady wrote. “Public health must always be driven by science and medicine, and never politics. … As a physician and public health leader, my work to advance health, equity, and justice, particularly for those on the margins, will continue.”

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot applauded the contributions her public health commissioner made to Chicago’s mental health care infrastructure, response to the MPX virus and the opioid crisis in a written statement Friday night.

“[Arwady] is a hero. We all owe a debt to her unflagging commitment to data, science and keeping us all safe through one of the worst pandemics that the world has ever seen,” Lightfoot wrote. “Dr. Arwady is a national leader, and we are lucky that she chose to be a public servant in our city. My admiration and love for her are without limit.”

In a debate shortly before the April runoff election, Johnson was adamant he would not keep Arwady should he win the election. In later interviews, he said he planned to sit down with her, but noted displeasure about her role in sending students back to Chicago Public Schools amid COVID-19 concerns.

An infectious disease expert and pediatrician whom Lightfoot appointed to the City Hall post, Arwady told the Sun-Times in April she would like to continue under Johnson.

“I am hopeful to stay on in my role,” she told the newspaper in April. “I’m looking forward to the conversation.”

The public health commissioner oversees a number of programs that include mental health, opioid addiction, HIV and other infectious diseases and environmental protection.

On Thursday, the Chicago Board of Health, an advisory panel, issued a letter touting the agency’s accomplishments under Arwady’s leadership in a letter to Johnson, though they didn’t specifically endorse keeping her on.

“[Arwady] is a consummate public health professional who guided the city’s response to the COVID pandemic and has worked tirelessly and diligently with her team to transform the way in which the City of Chicago approaches mental and behavioral health as well as threats to physical health and well-being,” the board wrote.

The board also listed what it wants to see in candidates being considered for health commissioner, such as experience with racial equity and commitment to transparency even amid lack of progress, among other things.

But after Arwady’s dismissal, board president Janet Lin issued her own statement, emphasizing she was speaking only for herself.

Linn called on the city to “uplift and wholeheartedly” support the health department going forward.

“It is never a settling feeling when someone who has served as a public servant for the betterment of our civil society and under challenging circumstances over the recent past several years is dismissed,” Lin said in an email to the Sun-Times Friday night. “That said, it is also important for us to remain focused on supporting continuation of important areas of need and progress that has been made over the recent years which is rooted in working toward the equitable public health of Chicagoans.”

Arwady has been credited for her leadership role during the COVID years, but she also has been in the crosshairs of the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, a significant backer and ally of Johnson.

The teachers felt Arwady sent students back to classrooms too early as COVID continued to infect Chicagoans.

Lightfoot’s hardball tactics of threatening to withhold teachers’ pay and locking them out of their online classrooms during the back-to-school dispute also harmed Arwady’s reputation among the educators.

Arwady tried to downplay those tensions, calling them “differences of opinion.”

The Yale-educated Arwady, a former epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said she and Johnson share a number of common goals, including narrowing the life expectancy gap that exists between white and Black Chicagoans.

On average, white Chicagoans live a full 10 years longer than the city’s Black residents.

Arwady and Lightfoot also drew the ire of environmental activists, especially in the early stages of the planned relocation of the General Iron car-shredding operation to the Southeast Side. Arwady ultimately blocked the operation but that followed many protests, including a month-long hunger strike.

“It should never have taken a 30-day hunger strike” to sway public health officials, said Olga Bautista, who heads the Southeast Environmental Task Force.

Contributing: Fran Spielman

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