When Dr. Theresa Chapple-McGruder became director of the Oak Park Department of Public Health last spring, the COVID-19 pandemic had shifted into a new phase. Almost a year after the novel virus disrupted, devastated and claimed the lives of many around the world, the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine offered a silver lining, a return to normalcy.
Fast forward to the present day and the pandemic is still here. The coronavirus has now split into two variants, delta and omicron, and the sudden surge of positive cases have local leaders, including Chapple-McGruder, in the center of the eye of the storm, combatting another wave of challenges by layering safety efforts.
There were things “we expected to happen” once vaccines were out, but “I think knowing what we know now, we would have set expectations a little differently,” said Chapple-McGruder.
For Chapple-McGruder, the COVID-19 pandemic is not the first pandemic she’s worked on. She was an epidemiologist for the Shelby County Health Department in Tennessee during the 2009 swine flu (H1N1) pandemic and reprised the same role for the Georgia Department of Public Health when the Zika virus emerged a few years later.
Chapple-McGruder told Wednesday Journal her experience working on the COVID-19 pandemic is rather different from the previous ones. With H1N1 and Zika, those viruses greatly impacted pregnant women, babies and young children; whereas the coronavirus could affect all people. There was a bigger learning curve with Covid, she said. It was also more widespread.
“There’s just a lot of health education that should have gone along with the [COVID-19] virus and where we are, and the vaccine, and how it works and what it does, and that didn’t happen,” said Chapple-McGruder, whose medical specialty centers on maternal and child health.
“We were just in the midst of it and trying to figure out how to stay safe, how to stay healthy ourselves and how do we then work with the public and all that,” she said. “[There were] just too many pieces happening at once where we weren’t able to really focus on the education arm of it.”
That’s the thing, she opined. Providing people with information and access to data and resources are foundational to the mission behind public health, but the pandemic also highlighted the issues public health departments across the U.S. have faced over the years.
In 2020, Kaiser Health News (KHN) reported that the government has decreased its spending for state and local public health departments for the last decade. Since 2010, funding for state public health departments fell by 16% per capita while spending for local health departments was down 18%. KHN also reported nearly 38,000 state and local public health jobs have been slashed since the recession in 2008.
Over recent years, Wednesday Journal has reported that the Village of Oak Park cut its public health department’s budget by roughly 20% in 2015 and removed two full-time positions. It remains severely understaffed, a skeleton of its former self.
“The thing with public health is that when you’re doing it right, no one notices,” she said, calling it the “forgotten” governmental service.
Chapple-McGruder currently runs a tight-knit eight-employee ship at the health department, all of whom work to rein in the pandemic and protect a community of more than 52,000 residents. Three weeks ago, the department welcomed its first health education manager, a new role that had been open since August and meant to mend the gaps of information between the department and the community.
“This is not me saying, ‘our health department is bad,’” she said. “This is me saying that the nation’s commitment to public health has decreased over time, putting us in a place wherein the midst of the pandemic we don’t have all the tools we need in order to adequately fight the pandemic in a way that makes sense to our community and in a way that is effective and efficient.”
“What we are left with is doing our absolute best with what we have,” she said. “I came to a health department that has eight people, and the eight of us are doing our absolute best every day. We all work.”
In the line of fire
As the village’s public health director, Chapple-McGruder is at the helm of every conversation around COVID-19 mitigations. She is the face of the health department, which means she is often characterized as a hero or villain in the tale of the pandemic.
In the last nine months, under the leadership of Chapple-McGruder, the department has worked with Oak Park’s schools, village, medical and business leaders, and guided them through the course of the pandemic. From tracking Covid cases to implementing safety measures based on state and federal mandates, Chapple-McGruder and her staff have remained at the forefront of the fight against the novel virus.
Over the summer, the department unveiled a mobile health van, an idea of Chapple-McGruder’s aimed to boost the education around vaccines, dispel any myths and make vaccines more accessible. And once the vaccines were approved for children and teens, she partnered with Oak Park public school officials to host vaccination clinics.
Back in November, Chapple-McGruder and a fleet of medical volunteers teamed up with Oak Park School District 97 and led eight vaccination clinics for eligible students ages 5 to 11. The clinics were massive undertakings, held across eight different district schools over a four-day span. The department closed out that week with an additional vaccine clinic to accommodate 5- to 11-year-olds in Oak Park who do not attend public schools.
In District 97 alone, more than 2,000 students received the first dose of the two-shot Pfizer Covid vaccine.
On Twitter, a worn-out Chapple-McGruder revealed her human side: “After a 90-minute nap, I’m still exhausted. 5 days of vaccination clinics complete. I don’t want to do this again in 2 weeks and 3 days.”
But they did, finishing off the students’ vaccination series.
Chapple-McGruder has also faced backlash especially from local parents who believed District 97’s two-week quarantine policy for students identified as close contacts was too restrictive.
More recently, she was criticized and blamed for supporting Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200’s decision to pause extracurricular and sports activities after a COVID-19 outbreak impacted dozens of staff and students. A group of OPRF parents and students gathered outside school grounds to protest that decision, which was quickly overturned.
That rally, Chapple-McGruder said, is an example of an instance where she called for Oak Park police to protect herself and her family. Chapple-McGruder told the Journal there were parents on social media who talked about protesting outside her home, and she received frantic calls from neighbors who were worried for her and her family.
In some ways, that experience served as a visceral reminder that racism can happen even in Oak Park. On Twitter, Chapple-McGruder likened her experience to that of Percy Julian, a famed chemist and one of Oak Park’s first Black residents whose home was infamously firebombed and whose family experienced racist attacks.
“Dr. Percy Julian paved the way for me,” tweeted Chapple-McGruder, who is Black. “I have police protection in this community because of the progress he pushed for. We still have a long way to go in our community. I should be able to do my job without needing police protection.”
“I would never have imagined the hostility that I faced in Oak Park,” she told the Journal.
At this point, Chapple-McGruder said residents have called her an “idiot” so many times she is not “even phased by it anymore.” She’s also used to people questioning her professional and educational experience and background. In fact, Chapple-McGruder’s administrative assistant keeps a folder marked “Don’t Read” packed with her hate mail.
Again, Chapple-McGruder said, she didn’t know about that side of Oak Park. It’s not the community she knew and fell in love with years ago.
“I started my real adult life here,” said Chapple-McGruder, who lived in Oak Park roughly a decade ago while completing a doctoral program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “I bought my first home here. I got married here. I adopted my first child here.
“When my husband and I left – and we have lived in multiple states since – we would always compare everything to Oak Park. So, when I found out that Oak Park was looking for a health department director – and it was definitely my goal to be a health department director to help communities through the pandemic – we were totally excited, and this is where we wanted to be.”
It’s been tough being a Black woman in a leadership role, she told the Journal. The lines separating criticisms, discrimination and microaggressions are, at times, blurred with fear and concern or buried under data and interpretation.
But it’s not all bad, Chapple-McGruder said. In her everyday life, she sees glimpses of that same ole’ Oak Park, the one that is welcoming and endearing. It’s right there, right on her block, she said.
That type of love comes in bushels of ‘thank you cards’ from area students, holiday gift baskets or carry out dinners courtesy of local residents; there are times that some neighbors have picked Chapple-McGruder’s daughters up from school. It’s that kind of warmth, that community that Chapple-McGruder leans on for strength and is motivated by to carry on.
“There have been extremely high-highs; there’ve been extremely low-lows. I wonder what that normal is going to be because I have yet to experience normal here and what normal would look like with my family, and just living here and just working here and just being a part of the community,” she said. “I’m looking forward to that time.”
Those who’ve made an impact
Wednesday Journal has named a Villager of the Year in Oak Park since 1985. Here are the people we’ve previously recognized:
1985 Dan Elich, founder of the CARE political party
1986 Keith Bergstrom, Oak Park police chief
1987 Clifford Osborn, Oak Park village president
1988 J. Neil Nielsen, Oak Park village manager
1989 John Fagan, superintendent of Oak Park Elementary School District 97
1990 Marjorie Judith Vincent, Oak Parker named Miss America that year
1991 Philip Rock, Illinois Senate president
1992 Joseph Mendrick, Oak Park police chief
1993 Allen Parker, Oak Park village manager
1994 Crime-fighting Harrison Street residents, organized to resist gang incursions from the West Side
1995 John FS Williams, director of Oak Park Township Youth Services
1996 Martin Noll, founder of Community Bank of Oak Park-River Forest
1997 Rev. M. Randolph Thompson, pastor and founder of Fellowship Christian, Oak Park’s first predominantly Black church
1998 Kathy Lamar, active in youth concerns and outgoing District 97 school board member
1999 Susan Bridge, superintendent and principal of Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200
2000 Carl Swenson, Oak Park village manager
2001 Seymour Taxman, developer of the Shops of Downtown Oak Park, River Forest Town Centers I and II, Euclid Terraces, and the Mews
2002 Nile Wendorf and Mila Tellez, community activists
2003 Robert Milstein, a rare trustee on the Oak Park village board who was not a member of the Village Manager Association party
2004 John Schiess and Alex Troyanovsky, architect and developer, respectively, on numerous projects in Oak Park
2005 Citizens for Change, group of nine who helped shift power to a new political organization
2006 Ali ElSaffar, Oak Park Township assessor
2007 David Pope, village president, and Tom Barwin, village manager
2008 Gary Balling, park district executive director
2009 Mike Kelly, head of Park National Bank
2010 OPRF Citizens Council, fighting substance abuse
2011 Peter Traczyk, District 97 board president
2012 Collaboration for Early Childhood Care and Education
2013 Anan Abu-Taleb, Oak Park president
2014 John Phelan, D200 board president
2015 Cara Pavlicek, Oak Park village manager
2016 Monica Sheehan, community activist
2017 Anthony Clark, founder of Suburban Unity Alliance, OPRF teacher
2018 Jackie Moore, D200 board president
2019 Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, D200 Superintendent
2020 Oak Park residents, helpers and heroes
Next week: River Forest’s Villager of the Year
This year we’re presenting Wednesday Journal’s Villager of the Year in two parts.
Today it is Oak Park’s Villager of the year. Next week, Jan. 12, we’ll announce our River Forest Villager of the Year.