Seven years ago, almost to the day, when Anan Abu-Taleb became Oak Park’s village president — the shift to the mayor title would come later — the village was in tough financial shape. Cash was very tight, there was a structural deficit, the economy was only slowly recovering from the collapse of 2008, all the buildings were short. 

Abu-Taleb had been elected by a serious margin with a mandate for change.  

Right now, all the current focus is on COVID-19 and the rightful perception that Oak Park is fortunate to be one of five governments in Cook County with its own certified public health department. But I remembered that well up the list of changes the new village president was itching for was taking the axe to the health department. The gist: Other towns our size don’t have health departments. It costs a lot of money. We’ll just sign on with the Cook County health department and they can do whatever it is that health departments do. 

On Monday morning I shared my memory with the mayor and he said, good-naturedly, “One thing I’ve learned is that newspapers don’t forget things.”

Well thanks for that compliment. What’s interesting isn’t that he wanted to cut the department but that the village didn’t. And now he’s grateful it didn’t happen.

“It’s really important to approach a new job with fresh eyes, to challenge the status quo,” said Abu-Taleb. “But it’s also important to listen, to see the evidence and to evolve your thinking. We went through the evaluation process with a goal of making everything more efficient. It paid off.”

In that process, he acknowledged, the village cut costs in the health department by about $200,000, effectively halving the shortfall between revenues the department brings in with fees and permits and grants and what it was costing. There are certainly people in local government who saw that as a cleaver not a surgical reduction. 

But the health department is still here, still led by Mike Charley, and in recent days substantially buttressed by staff realignments from other departments and the call-back of a retired nurse. Abu-Taleb said Oak Park is way ahead because it has a health department.

Trustee Susan Buchanan, a doctor with a public health career at the University of Illinois Chicago, agrees. These days she is spending two days a week at her clinic at UIC dealing with the immediate health issues of university employees. “We’re getting hundreds of phone calls. So we’re triaging those people.” And there are many walk-ins. “We’re a small clinic, close quarters, tons of volunteers. So, yes, I feel at risk,” she says. The university has adequate PPE but not nearly enough tests to administer. “We’re still only testing people who are symptomatic.”

Calling the response “at the highest levels of the federal government a travesty,” Buchanan says this pandemic was fully predicted.

“That’s why we have a public health system in our government. It came out of earlier crises at the beginning of the last century — cholera, polio,” she said. But funding for public health is always cut once the immediate memory of pain recedes. 

She describes Oak Park as having “a small” health department but says, “It looks like the Oak Park Health Department is doing a great job.” She points to the timely reports on local COVID-19 testing and effective contact tracing. “We are lucky in Oak Park because we get more attention to those details like inspecting grocery stores.”

Buchanan doesn’t buy May 1 as a date to begin reopening the country. In terms of the future of the local health department, she said, “We need to think about this when this pandemic is over. Public health should be an essential service like housing and education.”

And just to keep you up at night, Buchanan said the next threat to our health will result from climate change and the arrival of “more tropical diseases further north.” Think malaria.

Both Buchanan and Abu-Taleb offer thanks to Oak Parkers who are staying home.

“I appreciate, from the bottom of my heart, the compliance. I know it is so much more difficult when you have kids at home. We can always recover economic losses and jobs. But not lives. We will come out of this healthier, stronger and kinder,” says Abu-Taleb.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...