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After a grueling tenure, Dr. Ngozi Ezike steps down from Illinois public health job

Jerry Nowicki
Capitol News Illinois

Not many people noticed when Dr. Ngozi Ezike took over as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, even though she was the first Black woman to hold the position.

It’s not that they didn’t care; most just didn’t know.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s office is responsible for hundreds of appointments – people to lead departments and agencies, folks to sit on boards and commissions.

Ezike was one of 10 appointments announced in a press release on Jan. 31, 2019. She found out through a phone call she answered from an unknown number — it was Pritzker offering her the job. She wrote a few journal entries about this time period.

“One [entry] said, ‘Wow, a dream is coming true for me even before I ever dreamt the dream, but now 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 with a laugh.

What started as a routine executive appointment warped into an arduous leadership opportunity almost a year later. On Jan. 24, 2020, Chicago detected the second case of COVID-19 in the U.S. Since then, Illinois has seen more than 3 million cases and lost more than 33,000 lives to the virus. Holding tight at its helm was Ezike, who is marking her final day in office Monday.

“She and I both started to, right away from the beginning there, [realize we needed to be] much more in the public eye,” said Dr. Alison Arwady, director of the Chicago Department of Public Health. “People in public health do not naturally seek the public eye.”

The daily news conferences started soon after that. Every single day, Ezike, Pritzker and sometimes Arwady would get in front of microphones.

The tone of the news conferences were grim, but it intensified when Ezike reported the first case of community transmission in Chicago — that is, someone spreading COVID directly to another person and it wasn’t travel related.

By the end of March 2020, there were hundreds of new cases reported daily. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order March 21.Stores were running out of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, gas prices plummeted, restaurants shuttered and people stayed home.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

“Hola, me llamo Ngozi Ezike. Yo soy la Directora del Departamento de Salud Pública en Illinois,” said Ezike on March 18, 2020, after concluding her remarks in English.“Los números seguirán creciendo y anticipamos muertes adicionales. Esa es la realidad,” she said. “The numbers continue increasing, we anticipate additional deaths. This is the reality.”

Ezike maintained this style throughout more than 160 news conferences, insisting the state’s Spanish-speaking population be equally served.

“Many vulnerable populations are being affected by this pandemic, and none more than the Latinx population,” she said in another news conference. “The Latinx population has become the group with the highest proportion of cases in Illinois.”

Media outlets airing these news conferences often carried Ezike’s Spanish comments in their entirety, at least initially.

And they were always available through the state’s social media channels.

Annie Abbott is an associate professor in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at the University of Illinois who said people who don’t speak English as their first language often feel left out — not just in times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, but in other aspects of daily life as well.

“It’s very important in terms of getting information they need and can utilize, but it’s also important to see and to hear their language reflected at that level of power,” said Abbott.

“The speakers often feel discrimination for speaking [their] language, or often feel discrimination for speaking English with an accent,” she said, noting this can be especially isolating downstate. People who don’t live in a major metropolitan area like Chicago can find it challenging, she explained, especially when there aren’t large immigrant communities to lean on for support.

“Illinois is a really big state,” Abbott said. “And so then we have a lot of rural areas where people might be surprised to know how many Spanish speakers or Mayan speakers, speakers of Indigineous languages of Mexico and Central America, and these people have very few language resources available to them.”

Ezike's emphasis on accessibility extended to those in local health departments, who were trying to keep up with changing guidance and public orders while still trying to understand COVID itself.

Gail O’Neill is director of the Sangamon County Department of Public Health based in Springfield. She’s been with SCDPH for decades and remembers other outbreaks Springfield experienced. In 1998, for example, hundreds of people who swam in Lake Springfield contracted leptospirosis. There was also a meningitis outbreak in the early 1990s, which led to the vaccination of roughly 20,000 local kids.

This was different – a novel virus with constantly changing guidance – but Ezike was there. “I could actually text her and call her and have her answer my calls, as silly as it was, and she would call me back,” O’Neill said. “The other administrators experienced the same situation. It was amazing to have the support that we had from her.”

O’Neill and Arwady appreciated Ezike’s calm approach.

Arwady said that included repetition — even if there wasn’t new information, she and Ezike were out there telling people to wash their hands and stay six feet away from each other.

“She really worked hard to say it’s more important to be out there every day, even when people are scared, especially when people are scared,” Arwady said. “Not just to hear the high-level guidance, which was also a little bit lacking at that point, but to know, ‘How do I translate that to my life, to my situation?’"

All of that takes a toll eventually. Working from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, for months on end, while trying to stay calm in the face of rapidly changing science, is hard.

Especially when you have to spend a lot of time away from loved ones.

Ezike admitted as much during her emotional farewell news conference, where she said she had always been pretty available for her family – until she wasn’t.

“You have stood by, and you have supported me, you have not complained, you’ve made dinners, you’ve done all the pickups and dropoffs,” Ezike said, trying to speak through tears. “But now it’s time for me to make you my priority, and give back a portion of the attention, encouragement and support you lavished on me.”

No one could have foreseen the role Ezike would play in Illinois health care policy when she was unceremoniously announced in a governor’s office press release.

But the way she went out was markedly different — a lengthy news conference filled with speakers thanking her for her service and describing her positive impact as they shed tears.

Pritzker sent her off much more ceremoniously than he welcomed her in.“I have issued a proclamation declaring today, Tuesday, March 1, Dr. Ngozi Ezike Day in the state of Illinois,” Pritzker said to applause.

Alex Degman covers Illinois state government for WBEZ Chicago. Follow him @Alex_Degman

Copyright 2022 WGLT. To see more, visit WGLT.

Alex Degman is a Statehouse reporter with WBEZ.