'This is my chance': Ezike ends tenure atop state health department with virus numbers down
The head of the Illinois Department of Public Health is stepping down after three years at the helm of the agency and more than two years leading the state through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker called Dr. Ngozi Ezike's work "heroic" during the pandemic and said she was someone who "did not seek greatness but found it anyway."
"Being the state's top doc during a global pandemic has been challenging to say the least, but it's been an amazing journey to work with so many great public health professionals and leaders from all sectors," Ezike said. "The dedicated men and women of IDPH will continue their mission-driven work to protect the health and safety of all Illinois residents."
Ezike's last day is March 14.
Amaal Tokars, one of Ezike's deputies, will serve as the agency's head in the interim while the governor looks for a permanent replacement.
Widely admired for her calm and compassionate voice throughout the pandemic, Ezike was a fixture at more than 160 pandemic-related news conferences over the past two years and notably presented her updates in both English and Spanish. Tuesday's announcement was no different.
"I don't think I can leave without summarizing my notes in Spanish!" Ezike said through both tears and laughter.
Pritzker issued a proclamation honoring Ezike during a ceremony Tuesday at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
"With all her being, she has dedicated each day -- and I mean every day -- to the agency's mission to protect the health and wellness of the people of Illinois," Pritzker said. "It is a change I am loathe to accept, but perhaps she can finally get a good night's sleep. I have utmost faith that Dr. Ezike's next journey will also bring more good to the world, as has been the hallmark of every step of her career."
Julie Pryde, administrator of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, was also on hand Tuesday to thank Ezike for her years of service to local public health organizations.
Pryde became emotional during her remarks and Ezike rushed to her side to give her a tissue.
"See? There," Pryde said as she took a tissue from Ezike. "That's so typical. I'm struggling. I'm on the verge of tears in front of everyone, and who comes to the rescue? Dr. Ezike."
Pryde called Ezike's leadership throughout the pandemic "inspiring and so appreciated."
Ezike said she had no set plans after leaving the state's public health agency but wanted to reconnect with her family and herself.
"Another group sacrificed a lot in order to allow me to serve, and it's time I try to make amends for their sacrifices," she said. "I want to thank my family ... for tolerating the absences, the last-minute changes in plans, the endless multi-tasking and the ever-present cellphones. You have stood by and supported me. You have not complained. And you have made dinners. And you have done all the pickups and drop-offs, but now it's time for me to make you my priority."
When asked why she chose now to step aside, Ezike said the declining cases and hospitalizations make the transition easier.
"There's a lull in COVID cases and hospitalizations; that's a great thing," she said. "Spring and the summer have typically been stable times, so this is my chance."
State health officials Tuesday reported 958 COVID-19 patients were being treated in hospitals statewide, down 28% from a week ago.
Of those hospitalized, 179 are in intensive care, down 23.8% from a week ago, according to IDPH records.
IDPH officials are also reporting 40 more Illinois residents have died of COVID-19, and another 1,841 infections have been diagnosed with it.
That brings the state's death toll from the virus to 32,803, while 3,033,061 cases of the respiratory disease have been recorded.
The state's seven-day case positivity rate is down to 1.8%. At this time last year, it was at 2.4%. Case positivity is the percentage of test results that yield a new case, and a seven-day average is used to account for any anomalies in the daily reporting of those figures.
Another 12,236 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered statewide, according to IDPH figures.
Vaccine providers in Illinois have now administered 21,118,650 doses since December 2020.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting 67.5% of Illinois' 12.7 million residents are now fully vaccinated. Of those fully vaccinated, 49.1% have received a booster.