In the very tough years after the financial collapse of 2008, Oak Park’s village government cut deep into programs and personnel. It wasn’t an overreaction. Revenues had fallen sharply and village government never sat on large cash reserves. 

Some 70 staff members were let go over a couple of years. Public works jobs were privatized. Other positions went unfilled.

The department hit hardest was public health. Once a robust effort that was something of a jewel that Oak Park liked to brag on, questions were raised about why Oak Park was one of the very rare Chicago suburbs that had its own health department. Most other suburbs contracted out their health department services to Cook County government. When you consider the reputation of the county’s health services, such choices were certainly monetary and not aimed at innovation.

Ultimately a skeletal staff was left in the department and its mission was diminished.

That worked until COVID.

Over the past 15 months Oak Park has been fortunate to have its own health department — for the autonomy and quick decision-making and execution it allowed. But there’s also been criticism, especially since the release of vaccines, that Oak Park has sometimes seemed hamstrung, its residents limited in access as vaccinations were rationed early on.

Now, quietly and without much discussion, the health department is bulking up some. It’s new director, Theresa Chapple-McGruder, arrived in the spring to replace the departing Mike Charley. Now the village board has OK’d the addition of two posts. One is a replacement, the other is a newly created position as health education manager. Chapple-McGruder believes there is still room to grow the department but time will tell.

In recent weeks as the delta variant and the ignorant unvaccinated have conspired to drive up new cases of COVID-19, local critics have sounded off about Oak Park’s surprisingly low vaccination rates. A frequently heard criticism was why the department wasn’t hitting the streets looking for persuadable people ready for a convenient jab. This week we report that a “mobile health van” has been created and will be turning out at local gatherings to offer shots.

You can find it this week at Thursday Night Out in downtown Oak Park. This is a welcome and pro-active step. 

Count us among those grateful that Oak Park never gave up on having its own health department. We do not believe that COVID will be the last public health emergency to afflict us. And we also recognize that a progressive department can help an equity-focused village begin to address the major inequities in health care.

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