When Allison Arwady enrolled in Yale School of Medicine, she did not imagine it would someday mean requiring a police escort, and protests in front of her home.
Arwady, MD ’07, joined the Chicago Department of Public Health in 2015 as its chief medical officer. She was named commissioner of public health in January 2020, and four days afterward, the city of Chicago started implementing measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. That put Arwady in the crosshairs of an often-contentious public debate about the pandemic response in the nation’s third-largest city.
“It was an unusual introduction to how science and public health knowledge runs up against political realities in this country,” Arwady told her fellow alumni in a presentation on her work in Chicago during the medical school’s reunion on June 3 and 4.
Arwady said the training she received at Yale, working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and helping with the response to disease outbreaks in Africa and Saudi Arabia were ideal preparation for what she has done in Chicago. But some things she did not expect.
“For someone who loves outbreaks and infectious diseases, this was the most interesting thing I could be doing. There is nothing I would rather have been doing these last couple of years. But it came with an unexpected level of public scrutiny,” Arwady said.
Arwady said Chicago had good systems in place to respond to the outbreak. But many Chicagoans resisted measures she and other city leaders wanted to take that were grounded in science and which they knew would be effective.
“Misinformation and disinformation about COVID have taken hold and been supported in a way that public health and medicine were not set up to respond to,” she said.
There was an outcry about controversial city policies, but Arwady also faced personal attacks.
“As a doctor, as a white woman, as a member of city government, there are a lot of strikes against me for some people in Chicago to believe what I say about vaccines,” Arwady said. “I have spent a lot of time correcting misinformation where people think I make money when people get vaccinated.”
With police officers, firefighters, and health care workers, city officials encouraged them to get vaccinated. But many resisted, and that compelled more robust measures.
“We tried carrots. But with the police, we had a lot of officers die from COVID, and lots of them were out on leave. We saw such negative impacts on the workforce,” Arwady said. “The mayor agreed to a vaccine requirement for city workers, and I think that was the right thing to do. We saw a lot of people get vaccinated who otherwise would not have done it.”
Responding effectively to misinformation about COVID policies also meant adopting new communications tools. For example, Arwady said she and her staff were broadcasting programs about the city’s response on Facebook Live seven days a week.
“If you’re going to combat misinformation, you have to be on social media,” she said.
And how did Arwady spend her precious moments of downtime during the pandemic? By reading the latest research on COVID-19.
“For me, even when things were really crazy, I always found it very calming to read a little bit of the scientific literature, to take a step back from the crazy and say, ‘We are learning,’” she said. “There is so much that we did not know. It’s amazing how quickly the scientific community turned its attention to understanding this disease.”