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Ngozi Ezike, Illinois’ Health Leader During COVID Crisis, Stepping Down

Dr. Ngozi Ezike became a widely recognized figure at the outset of the pandemic, regularly giving updates in multiple languages. Her last day is March 14.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, former director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, speaks at a press conference about COVID-19 in Illinois on March 20 in Chicago.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Dr. Ngozi Ezike, who became the face of Illinois’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a calming presence for many, is stepping down from her role as head of the state’s health department.

Ezike’s last day as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health is March 14, she and Gov. JB Pritzker announced Tuesday. To honor Ezike’s service, Pritzker marked March 1, 2022, as Dr. Ngozi Ezike Day across the state.

Ezike became a widely recognized figure at the outset of the pandemic, when she began appearing at news conferences with Pritzker to talk about COVID-19 cases and how the state would try to save lives while navigating the crisis’s complexities. She’s appeared at 161 COVID-19 updates, the governor said.

“All of the people and all of their stories, I will carry always in my heart,” Ezike said while weeping at the announcement Tuesday. “I acknowledge and mourn with the families of all the lives lost; not just to COVID, but to gun violence, to suicide, to drug overdoses, to racism, to cancer and all the other diseases and ills that public health officials and all of our partners work tirelessly to curb.

“Being a half-full kind of gal, I am focusing in on all the positive actions of so many private citizens and all the stakeholders who have helped get us through these tough times.”

Giving updates and answering questions in English, Spanish and even French at points, Ezike was known to weep and offer condolences as she talked about Illinoisans who had died from the virus and the strain put on health care workers.

Other leaders became emotional during Tuesday’s announcement, crying and praising Ezike’s work to protect Illinoisans during the pandemic.

Ezike became a “beacon of stability for millions during a time of tremendous uncertainty,” Pritzker said. “No number of sleepless nights and endless days could wear her down, her commitment to think first and foremost of Illinois’ must vulnerable.

“… She has had one of the hardest jobs in the world.”

Ezike — and Pritzker — was criticized by some for the response to COVID-19, particularly when it came to the shutdown at the start of the pandemic and mask mandates.

But Ezike noted Illinois has entered a “new chapter in our COVID journey,” as cases have fallen sharply since the Omicron surge, vaccinations are available and therapeutics can be used to treat people.

The end of the latest mask mandate, which came Monday, does not mean the end of the pandemic, though, Ezike said. She urged people to remain cautious and take safety steps that are appropriate for them and their loved ones.

“It has been just an honor to be able to share these updates, share information, help create policy,” Ezike said.

The internist and pediatrician said she’s recently looked back at notes and diary entries from January 2019, when Pritzker offered her the role of director at the health department.

“One say, ‘Wow, a dream is coming true for me even before I ever dreamt the dream. But it’s now my reality.’ Another one said, ‘I’m so excited to grow and be stretched to new limits.’ Didn’t exactly know the full impact of that,” she said, laughing. “Another said, ‘I just look forward to doing wonderful things for the residents of Illinois.'”

Now, Ezike will take a step back to reconnect with herself and her family, she said.

Dr. Amaal Tokars, who has worked as assistant director of the agency, will serve as its interim head while a national search is conducted to replace Ezike.

Ezike will help Tokars transition into the role, she said.

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