Dr. Ngozi Ezike’s last day as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health is March 14.
She’s leaving the agency after three years, much of that time spent leading the state through the coronavirus pandemic. In a “Chicago Tonight: Black Voices” one-on-one interview, she says the time is right to step away, as cases decline and COVID measures are relaxing.
“Obviously, the end of last year as omicron was peaking and record numbers of hospitalization even more than any other surge, that wasn’t going to be the right time,” Ezike said. “But as we’re coming off of the omicron surge and have had these continuous drops in the number of cases and the number of hospitalizations and deaths, I figured this is the time, this is the moment where we’re taking a little bit of a breather and that we can, you know sub out and get a fresh pair of legs and a fresh pair of eyes to take on this incredible work for the department, not just for COVID but all of the public health issues that we’re running.”
Ezike said responding to COVID has been a very taxing and rewarding experience.
“In the moment it was like, OK, this is something that’s happening. We see cases first in China, oh we see cases in Europe, oh we have a first case in Washington, we know there’s no way that Illinois would be spared, but just understanding the magnitude of this experience and the global pandemic, that’s not something that we could really imagine even as we have prepared with the public health department, with our local health departments for something just as this, but you know, many people have prepared their whole careers, but very few people have actually seen something like this,” she said.
Ezike said the most frustrating part of the pandemic was the way it was politicized. She’s most proud of the people of Illinois who chose to get vaccinated, isolated as needed and got tested when exposed or symptomatic.
“Without people doing that, we would have had so many more infections and so many more hospitalizations and worse,” she said.
Ezike said saying goodbye is bittersweet, but she’s looking forward to taking a bit of a break.
“You know I have nothing finalized. I have been very fortunate to have multiple recruiters seek me out and so I’m very excited next week to definitely engage with those recruiters and talk about what some possible next options could be,” she said.
Ezike is leaving the health department as the first Black woman to lead the 143-year-old state agency.
“We’re on the heels of International Women’s Day and you know the point of that day is to celebrate the achievement of women,” Ezike said. “I’m excited to have broken a barrier, but more important, I’m really excited to hold the door open, to have fed the pipeline, to have brought more women, more people of color into the agency so that we can, not just be celebrating the first, but be seeing the second and the third and the fourth, and not be excited to see this because this will be normalized assomething that we see from women and women of color.”