CHICAGO — The state’s top medical officer wept during a coronavirus briefing Friday as deaths and hospitalizations continue to climb throughout Illinois.
Dr. Ngozi Ezike, head of the Illinois Department of Public Health, has unwaveringly guided Illinois through the COVID-19 crisis for months. But the doctor broke down during an emotional briefing where she pleaded for Illinoisans to wear masks and social distance so they can save lives — and stop health care workers from being overwhelmed by seeing more patients die.
Ezike noted at the start of the briefing she is not immune to “COVID fatigue” and has felt and lived the pain and tragedy of life during the pandemic. But cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are all rising, she said, before noting the most recent statistics.
“Since yesterday, we lost an additional 31 lives for a total of 9,418 deaths. These are people who started with us in 2020 and won’t be with us at the Thanksgiving table.” She paused for a moment and continued, “Today, we are reporting 3,874 new cases, for a total of 364,033 confirmed cases since the start of this pandemic.”
Ezike then turned away, crying. She returned to the podium and apologized after a moment, but her voice continued to catch with emotion as she spoke.
“My message to you is to stay strong,” she said. “This is a difficult race when you can’t actually see the endpoint, and I’m sorry that that’s the message I have for you.
“Nevertheless, I’m asking you to fight the fatigue. Fight the urge to give up on social distancing. Fight for your kids to have safe, healthy [opportunities] to have in-person learning in school with teachers who are trained to teach them in the classroom.
“This does mean wearing your mask anytime you’re around people. This means reconsidering that large gathering, that large social event. It means thinking about wearing masks in your own home when you’re with other people from outside of your household. Think about connecting with friends and family virtually.”
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Taking those steps can make it so kids go back to school, people can return to work and family events can held safely without turning into super-spreader events, Ezike said.
The doctor also urged people to remember that, even if they are healthy, they can pass the virus on to someone who isn’t as “fortunate” and could become seriously ill and die.
After Ezike finished her impassioned plea, Gov. JB Pritzker complimented her work throughout the crisis.
“Dr. Ezike is Superwoman,” the governor said, noting she’s worked 24 hour a day, seven days a week for months, and takes calls and joins meetings at every hour. “The people of the state of Illinois are her patients, and you can imagine she cares so deeply about her patients.”
Pritzker said Ezike has been subject to verbal attacks and protests outside her home, which adds additional “pressure and burden” to her work.
But Illinoisans should be proud of how Ezike has guided the state’s response to COVID-19, Pritzker said.
Later during the briefing, Ezike said it has been “sad to see the numbers go up again” and she’s worried about the toll this second wave will take on health care workers.
“People have worked very hard to get us through the first phrase … and these staff that went through all that pain to try to save as many people as they can are seeing history repeat itself,” Ezike said. “So if you’re talking about COVID fatigue from having to keep wearing a mask, think about the COVID fatigue for health care workers … who are going to have to go through this whole episode again of trying to fight for people’s lives because we couldn’t figure out how to control this virus by doing some of the simple measures that have been prescribed.”
Putting people through this again is “unfortunate,” Ezike said, and the state is trying to find ways to show people masking up will save lives.
“I’m desperate to find the message that will work. I’m looking for someone to tell me what the message is so we can do what it takes to turn this around,” Ezike said. “The virus has caused this. And instead of pitting one group against another, we need to get that and fight against the virus. And we can do that. We have some tools to do that.
“… We have a mask. And we’re asking people to use that. And I don’t know what else we can say.”
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