Chicago’s former top doctor has been selected as one of 13 people who will help President-elect Joe Biden develop a plan to combat the coronavirus as he waits to move into the White House.
Dr. Julie Morita was in leading roles at the Chicago Department of Public Health for nearly two decades. Her work included increasing access to vaccines throughout Chicago communities and reducing disparities in immunizations, according to a biography from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation where she currently serves as vice president.
Biden announced the coronavirus task force Monday. It’s comprised mostly of doctors and will be led by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Food & Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler and Marcella Nunez-Smith, a professor of public health at Yale University.
“Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is one of the most important battles our administration will face, and I will be informed by science and by experts,” Biden said in a written statement.
Chicago’s current public health commissioner, Dr. Allison Arwady, said in an interview with WBEZ Monday that having Morita on the task force will be good for Chicago. Arwady, who’s led Chicago’s COVID-19 response, considers Morita one of the “major public health mentors in [her] whole life.” She worked directly under Morita for four years, and then replaced Morita after her departure.
She said she spoke with Morita shortly after Monday’s announcement.
“And the nice thing is when you’re talking to someone who understands local public health … and the Chicago Department of Public Health intimately, I can share with her some details of what is going well, what is not going as well, from my standpoint, what could be helpful at the federal level … having that local perspective is critical I think.”
Arwady said she expects Mortia to prioritize equity and access when helping to shape COVID-19 policy at the federal level, saying she was at the heart of shifting CDPH to an equity-first health department.
“Given that we’re about to be launching probably the most important vaccine that has ever been launched in the U.S.,” she said, “I am so pleased that someone with decades of on-the-ground experience, and not just theoretical, but what it actually looks like to distribute these on the ground in communities, [and] think about equity in that, how do you make sure that the group that most needs resources gets them?”
In August, Morita wrote an op-ed for CNN urging the federal government to come up with a comprehensive path to a vaccine and to work with communities to ensure governments can build trust, particularly with Black and Latino residents. She said she draws on her experience fighting the H1N1 outbreak in Chicago in 2009.
“I experienced the hesitancy toward vaccines among Black and Latino communities firsthand in 2009,” she wrote, adding that though hospitalizations were up among Black and Latino residents, the demand for vaccinations in those communities was relatively low.
“We went deep into Chicago’s neighborhoods to battle such disparities, committing ourselves to ground-level work that seemed almost as vital as the vaccine itself,” Morita wrote.
The task force already met with Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris Monday.
It’s the first step toward making good on Biden’s repeated campaign promise to listen to health experts and doctors when developing a rapid response to the coronavirus that he’s promised to implement the day he’s inaugurated.
Mariah Woelfel is a general assignment reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her @MariahWoelfel.