After campaigning for months to keep her job, Dr. Allison Arwady, the health commissioner who guided Chicago through the COVID-19 pandemic, was abruptly fired on Friday without ever meeting with Mayor Brandon Johnson. The termination was confirmed by Ronnie Reese, Johnson’s spokesperson. Arwady was informed of the decision shortly after 5 p.m. by Rich Guidice, Johnson’s chief of staff, and reportedly did not have the opportunity to say goodbye to her staff. She still has not met with Johnson.
In a series of tweets posted on Friday evening, Arwady described her time leading the health agency as the “best chapter” of her life and emphasized the importance of ensuring that the city’s health department receives the necessary funding to remain strong. She stated, “Public health must always be driven by science and medicine, and never politics.” Arwady, an infectious disease expert and pediatrician, expressed her commitment to advancing health, equity, and justice for marginalized communities.
Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot expressed her admiration for Arwady’s contributions to Chicago’s mental health care infrastructure, response to the MPX virus, and handling of the opioid crisis. Lightfoot praised Arwady as a national leader and acknowledged the debt of gratitude owed to her for her commitment to data, science, and public safety during the pandemic.
During a debate before the April runoff election, Johnson made it clear that he would not retain Arwady if elected. He later mentioned plans to meet with her, but expressed displeasure with her decision to reopen Chicago Public Schools amidst COVID-19 concerns.
Arwady, who was appointed by Lightfoot and expressed her desire to continue under Johnson, oversaw various programs including mental health, opioid addiction, HIV, and environmental protection. The Chicago Board of Health, an advisory panel, highlighted the accomplishments of Arwady’s leadership in a letter to Johnson. However, they did not explicitly endorse her continuation in the role. After her dismissal, board president Janet Lin issued a statement emphasizing the need to support the health department and prioritize equitable public health.
Arwady faced scrutiny from the influential Chicago Teachers Union, which believed she had sent students back to classrooms too early during the ongoing pandemic. She also faced criticism from environmental activists regarding the planned relocation of the General Iron car-shredding operation to the Southeast Side. Ultimately, Arwady blocked the operation after weeks of protests, including a hunger strike.
Arwady, a Yale-educated epidemiologist and former official at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shared common goals with Johnson, including addressing the life expectancy gap between white and Black Chicagoans. However, tensions between Arwady, Johnson, and Lightfoot persisted, particularly in relation to COVID-19 safety measures in schools and environmental concerns.
This report was contributed by Fran Spielman. Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is supported by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.