Mayor Brandon Johnson appoints new Chicago health commissioner

By Chicago 7 Min Read

Three months after summarily firing the woman who led Chicago through the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Brandon Johnson has chosen a former New York City public health professional to take Dr. Allison Arwady’s place.

Dr. Olusimbo “Simbo” Ige, managing director of programs at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will become the first Black woman to serve as Chicago’s permanent health commissioner. As an assistant health commissioner in New York, she helped lead that city through the pandemic.

Johnson hailed his choice as a “tremendous addition” who will “lead with compassion, competency and collaboration.” The Chicago Department of Public Health needs all three to cope with more than 400 vacancies and the impending loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in pandemic-era federal funds.

“Dr. Ige is someone who understands the balance between hard data and community interaction when assessing public health problems and solutions, and with decades of experience in public health, she brings a clear-eyed understanding of both the challenges and the opportunities that CDPH and our city face, and how we will collectively overcome them,” the mayor stated in in a news release.

Senior mayoral adviser Jason Lee said Ige has an “extraordinary record at the highest levels of public health.” The mayor chose her because she is in sync with him, having “demonstrated a commitment” to equity and the expansion of mental health, ‘treatment not trauma’ and community violence interruption that is trauma-informed,” Lee said.

“It’s definitely not a negative,” that she is also a Black woman, Lee said. “Black women are leading at the forefront of so many issues across the country, particularly as it relates to public health, maternal health and mental health.” 

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Ige was tasked with helping health organizations across the nation make their systems of care “accountable and equitable,” according to the mayor’s office. In addition to dealing with COVID-19, her work at New York City’s health department included food security programs, housing and health initiatives, mental health programs, violence prevention, and the Public Health Corps initiative. 

Ige said in the news release that she looks forward to “bringing all that I have learned” to the new challenge.

“Through collaboration with the Johnson Administration and with community members in Chicago, I am confident that we can improve the health outcomes for all Chicagoans,” Ige said.

Dr. Julie Morita, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, once served as Chicago’s health commissioner.  

“Knowing a little bit about her next position, I am confident that Dr. Ige possesses the knowledge and commitment to drive positive change in public health. Her passion is an inspiration,” Morita said in the news release.

Ige is the product of a nationwide search led by a committee that included former Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike; Dr. Wayne H. Giles, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Dr. David Ansell, a high-ranking official at Rush University Medical Center; and Arturo Carillo, deputy director for health and violence prevention at the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.

They chose four finalists, all of whom were interviewed by Johnson.

Dr. Allison Arwady at a June 2020 news conference.

Dr. Allison Arwady at a June 2020 news conference during her time as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Dr. Linda Rae Murray, a veteran public health official also on the search committee, described Ige as a “very impressive top choice for everybody” involved with the search.

“Her passion for public health and willingness to listen really showed through,” Murray said.  “In public health, you don’t really get a choice to specialize. But one of her areas of emphasis was health equity.”

Three months ago, Johnson fired Arwady, who clashed with the Chicago Teachers Union for opening Chicago Public Schools during the pandemic earlier than the union wanted them to open without the protections the CTU had demanded.

Her firing came as no surprise. Johnson was a paid organizer of the CTU who owed his election to the millions of dollars contributed by the union and the hundreds of foot soldiers the group and its affiliates provided.

But it was the way Johnson fired Arwady — on a Friday night without a meeting with the mayor or an opportunity to say goodbye to her staff — that opened the mayor to criticism.

Johnson has repeatedly refused to say whether he was doing the CTU’s bidding by firing Arwady. Nor would he say why he terminated her without the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting.

“I don’t believe it’s right to discuss the termination of an employee publicly. Morally, I don’t subscribe to that,” Johnson told the Sun-Times in mid-August. “I get it. Some people have become accustomed to these combative, adversarial dynamics that play out in the public. I’m not going to do that because that’s not what the people of Chicago want.”

Ige takes over a department with a record number of vacancies at a time when pandemic-era federal funding is evaporating.

Johnson’s first budget proposes reopening two of Chicago’s mental health clinics in health department buildings and doubling personnel assigned to a program that calls for mental health professionals to respond to nonviolent mental health emergencies instead of police.

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