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Top Chicago Public Health Official Addresses The City's Challenges Ahead


There's so much we don't know about the coronavirus - the exact method of transmission, why it affects some more than others. But one thing that we do know is that it's overwhelming metropolitan areas. Public health advisers say new hotspots are emerging in the U.S. in places like New Orleans, Detroit and Chicago. Here's Dr. Deborah Birx. She's the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force.


DEBORAH BIRX: Our concern about certain counties that look like they're having a more rapid increase - Wayne County in Michigan, and you look at Cook County and Chicago...

CHANG: In Chicago, there are now more than 2,100 cases of the disease, and the number of cases there is doubling every two to three days. Joining us now is Dr. Allison Arwady. She's the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.


ALLISON ARWADY: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So so much of the country's attention has been focused on New York the last couple of weeks, but Detroit, New Orleans, your city, Chicago, are all emerging as hotspots, we just said. What factors do you think are making the spread of the outbreak so intense in those particular cities?

ARWADY: Well, I think most of it just goes back to the fact that in urban areas, a lot of people live in close proximity. We have a lot of people who live in Chicago. We also have a lot of health care here in Chicago. And so where we think about people coming in, needing care, there's the potential to really see a lot of spread, I think, in cities. So...

CHANG: Oh, interesting. Well, I'm curious. How much do you think socioeconomic differences play into who gets affected by the coronavirus?

ARWADY: Yeah. I think it's a really interesting question. At the Chicago Department of Public Health, all the time, we're about health equity. We actually talk a lot about the racial life expectancy gap here in the city of Chicago, where we see black Chicagoans live on average almost nine years less long than white Chicagoans. And where you think about what drives that gap - forgetting about coronavirus, the biggest driver of that racial life expectancy gap are chronic diseases - heart diseases, lung diseases, exactly the diseases that would put people potentially more at risk for those severe complications or potentially even death from coronavirus. And so...

CHANG: Right.

ARWADY: As we're watching, you know, our data here in Chicago, you think about parts of the country that may have these same sorts of life expectancy gaps. You may potentially see more disease in places not only where people live more closely together, but you may have more folks who have more of those underlying conditions. So...

CHANG: Absolutely.

ARWADY: It's something we're paying a whole lot of attention to here.

CHANG: Well, your mayor, Lori Lightfoot - she says that Chicago could see 40,000 hospitalizations. Are you confident that, you know, you'll have the beds, the staff, the equipment like ventilators and masks that you will need to manage that surge of patients?

ARWADY: Right. So Chicago Department of Public Health is certainly one of the most prepared departments, and we're one of the most prepared cities for this. We had large pandemic flu exercises as recently as last year, talking through in a theoretical way what a pandemic would look like.


ARWADY: We have stockpiles of PPE in the ways that I know not all cities do.

CHANG: Enough, though?

ARWADY: But nevertheless - well, exactly. When you look at these kinds of numbers and these kinds of predictions, that is one end of a model. But it's certainly where we see potential for something like that. That is not a number of admissions that we in any way are set up to handle.


ARWADY: And so at the same time that we're working to increase capacity in our hospitals, this is where we're looking at some of these alternate care facilities. The fact that we're looking at potentially standing up even thousands of beds in McCormick Place points to the fact that we want to be ahead of this. We're hoping that it won't get to that, but we can't wait to be building some of that and thinking ahead if we do get to a point where all of our wonderful acute care hospitals are not able to surge to meet that high demand.

CHANG: What about the jails there? In the short time we have left, I saw that more than 100 inmates in Cook County Jail have tested positive for coronavirus. How is that factoring into how you're dealing with the outbreak in Chicago?

ARWADY: Yeah. So from the beginning, we've been very focused on congregate settings. So that's our long-term care facilities, certainly our shelters where folks are homeless, maybe, and then the jails. So the, you know, health department's been...


ARWADY: ...Onsite, working with the jail. We've been really...

CHANG: All right.

ARWADY: ...Working to make sure we're moving folks who are...


ARWADY: ...Positive. We're testing folks in those areas, taking it very seriously.

CHANG: That is Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Thank you.

ARWADY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.