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Dr. Ezike steps down as IDPH director as pandemic wanes

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, who guided the state through the pandemic and became a beacon of pride among Blacks, is stepping down after three years on the job.

Dr. Ezike’s announcement comes as COVID-19 cases continue to decline in Illinois and throughout the country. A Crusader analysis of the latest data from the Chicago Department of Public Health on March 1 shows 17 of 20 Black zip codes had a positivity rate below the city average of 1 percent. Approximately 15 people in Black neighborhoods died last week, a sharp decline from January when deaths soared into the triple digits for several weeks. The latest data show there were no deaths in 10 Black zip codes for an entire week.

On Monday, February 28, the city and state lifted mask mandates for indoor gatherings that had been in effect since last year. But at Mariano’s supermarket in Bronzeville, on Monday, a sign urging patrons to wear masks was still posted on the front door. At a Jewel supermarket in Washington Park many customers were not wearing masks and no sign was posted at the entrance urging patrons to do so. At a Walgreens at the Jeffrey Plaza in South Shore, an employee said masks were still required for its customers. At Daley’s Restaurant in Woodlawn, a sign urging patrons to wear masks was still on the front door, but most customers and employees did not have them on.

Dr. Ezike became an important figure during the pandemic, where thousands of Illinois residentstuned into her daily updates in English and Spanish. As the pandemic disproportionally affected minorities, Dr. Ezike became a role model for Blacks as she guided the state through a difficult period.

In Chicago and Cook County, many Blacks were disappointed when Dr. Terry Mason, chief operating officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health, was abruptly fired without explanation at the beginning of the pandemic in April 2020.

Dr. Ezike remained a steady presence as the head of the IDPH. But after a grueling two years, Dr. Ezike said she was leaving to spend time with her family. Her last day is March 14.

Dr. Amaal Tokars, the assistant director of IDPH, will serve as interim director while a nationwide search gets underway to find a permanent replacement, according to the Governor’s Office.

Dr. Ezike made the announcement Tuesday, March 1, during a press conference where Governor J.B. Pritzker praised her dedication and expertise she provided during the two-year pandemic.

Pritzker said he was “loathe to accept” Ezike’s resignation but said “she will go down in the Illinois history books as a woman who saved lives and changed our state for the better.”

“No number of sleepless nights and endless days could wear down her commitment to think first and foremost of Illinois’ most vulnerable,” Pritzker said. “I ran for office, I ran for office. She did not. But throughout the crisis, she has stood beside me every step of the way. I am not putting it lightly when I say that she has had one of the hardest jobs in the world. There is something particularly heroic about the service of an extraordinary individual who did not seek greatness but found it anyway.”

VACCINATED RATES 0301 e1646420961294In a separate statement, Dr. Ezike said, “It has been a great honor serving the people of Illinois as the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. 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.”

“IDPH consists of a team of unsung heroes, that by nature and definition works behind the scenes, who’s committed to public health. That commitment gave me strength every day,” said Ezike.

Ezike added, “I acknowledge and mourn with the families of all the lives lost not just to COVID, but to gun violence, to suicide, to drug overdose, to racism, to cancer, and all the other diseases and ills that public health officials and all of our partners work tirelessly to curb,” she said.

The mother of four thanked her family for enduring her absences.

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

Expressing emotions as she spoke at times, Ezike also encouraged people to be mindful and respectful of others as we move forward, especially those who may continue to wear masks indoors for their own personal reasons. “We have embarked on a new chapter in our COVID journey, and I just want to highlight that as the mask requirement has been lifted it does not mean that it’s not recommended,” she said.

Ezike is a board-certified internist and pediatrician who previously worked for health care systems in Cook County.

Dr. Ezike is the former medical director at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, and a nationally recognized expert in the area of health care within the juvenile detention and justice systems.

Dr. Ezike also worked for Cook County Health (CCH), the hospital and health care system addressing the needs of the residents of Cook County, for more than 15 years. In that capacity, she served as the Austin Health Center medical director, where she actively engaged with the community on a variety of health initiatives. She also has delivered inpatient care at Stroger Hospital and primary and preventive care in community and school-based clinics.

Dr. Ezike graduated with honors from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She received her medical degree from the University of California at San Diego. She completed her internship and residency at Rush Medical Center where she is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics. She also earned a management certificate from Harvard Business School.

She is the recipient of numerous awards including honorary doctorates from Southern Illinois University, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, Knox College, the University of St. Francis’ Sister Clare of Assisi Award, and the 2020 Excellence in Public Service Award from the Motorola Solutions Foundation.

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