Q&A: Dr. Ezike on dealing with the health crisis of a century and what reopening means
Most Illinois residents would have been stumped if asked to name the Illinois Department of Public Health director before March 2020.
That's not the case so much anymore.
Dr. Ngozi Ezike is a Harvard-educated, board-certified internist and pediatrician who has worked at all levels of public health during her career, but she admits she never expected to have to guide the state through the greatest worldwide public health crisis in more than a century when she took the reins of the state agency under Gov. J.B. Pritzker more than two years ago.
Thrust to the forefront in almost daily media briefings that extended for months at the height of the pandemic, Ezike calmly and assuredly detailed the state's efforts to thwart COVID-19 even as infections, hospitalizations and deaths climbed. While straightforward with her messaging throughout, her pediatrician's touch provided viewers with a modicum of comfort during some of the bleakest days of the pandemic.
As the state prepares to "fully reopen" Friday, the IDPH director reflects on her experiences throughout the pandemic, shares her thoughts on leadership and ponders the future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What does this move to reopen the state mean to you?
A. I think it's a really clear testament to how far we've come in terms of this expanded COVID journey we've been on together. It doesn't mark the end of the journey, but I think it puts us in a very good place, especially for those of us who are fully vaccinated, in terms of the freedoms COVID took away from us and what we can take back.
Q. At what point do you recall thinking COVID-19 was a really big threat?
A. I clearly remember the reports being shown internationally about the virus overseas. It was not long after that, in January 2020, the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and multiple federal agencies were already assembling the state health officers to talk about the threat. And we discussed what we would do around O'Hare airport in those calls. So, it started very early for us.
Q. Do you believe the threat was taken seriously at the federal level initially?
A. We're dealing with something no one has seen during their lifetime, or their careers even within this field. Hindsight is always 20/20 and we can armchair-quarterback and talk about what we could have done differently. But it is important to do that so we can better prepare for the next pandemic, which probably won't take another 100 years. So, just thinking about the things we did well, we know we can always do things better. We'll be putting that all together so we can be better prepared for the future.
Q. What was the learning process like?
A. It was pretty all encompassing. Sometimes guidance would be updated late into the evening, so trying to keep up with the guidance and all the medical research was happening in real time. Trying to look across the breadth of medical literature ... to understand what new things were developing with the virus, that was very important. You're trying to stay on top of something that was evolving so rapidly.
Q. Did you ever think of handing over the department to someone who specialized in epidemiology or virology?
A. For this whole experience there are so many skill sets that are required. I would love to see that superhuman who is a specialist in everything, but I think my role was to be able to quickly and efficiently gather all of the important information from all the different groups of specialists ... and be able to make sure we had an effective, unified plan going forward and to be a spokesperson in terms of communicating all of these important plans to our many stakeholders.
Q. COVID-19 became highly politicized. Did you ever fear for your or your family's safety?
A. I was aware of some of the very serious threats that were occurring to my colleagues (in other states). I was on alert and aware of the potential, but I would say neither my family nor myself were in imminent danger. But just the fact that someone trying to serve in this capacity should think there is any reason to be concerned, I think, was the troubling part. I'm fortunate it never rose to that level.
Q. What does your future at IDPH look like?
A. You know I have been absolutely honored to serve in this role. I'm so grateful to have been at the helm (of IDPH) during this incredible global effort. I have put everything I have into this role. Many people have been in similar roles around the country and have been asked to leave, or forced out or had to leave for security reasons. I've been fortunate to be in this role for the past two-plus years and I am grateful for every day I can say that. I will continue to give my 150% until I'm not in the role anymore.
Q. How did you take care of yourself during this ordeal?
A. It has challenged all of the personal, self-care mantras that I always preach and have been pretty good at following. I can remember being on calls with the CDC sometimes at 11 o'clock at night or midnight, and so trying to keep the routines and having the family dinners, and trying to stay connected to the family, trying to maintain exercise and workouts, trying to maintain the personal meditation, which for me is Bible reading, it definitely was a challenge. There were stretches of days when I couldn't do the things I needed to do to keep myself grounded, and it hurt because I didn't have the things that centered me.
Q. How do you see the pandemic ending?
A. I think when we started thinking about Phase 5 a year ago we were hoping there would be a vaccine or a cure that would make this not a thing anymore. That is not where we are.
You could say it's largely over now for people who are vaccinated. But because there is such a large number of people who are not vaccinated, this virus is still running around in our state and in our country. This is a global pandemic that is still surging in many places and we need to keep a close eye on what is happening, not just here in Illinois, but across the U.S. and throughout the world. We need to pay close attention to the potential of emerging new variants and how our current vaccines are responding. We definitely made great strides in Illinois and many of our freedoms will be restored with Phase 5, but COVID-19 is still with us, just not at the scale we have seen.