Pritzker’s public health chief Dr. Ngozi Ezike stepping down: ‘She saved lives, many, many thousands of lives’

As she prepared to leave the public stage on March 14, the state’s top doctor spoke of serving as a key adviser, calm leader, comforting voice — and “a role model to young girls, girls of color, little Black girls, that they can be leaders in any field.”

SHARE Pritzker’s public health chief Dr. Ngozi Ezike stepping down: ‘She saved lives, many, many thousands of lives’
Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike announces Tuesday that she is stepping down at Rush Hospital.

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike announces Tuesday that she is stepping down at Rush Hospital.

Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

After two years as the key architect and a reassuring public face of the state’s COVID-19 response, Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike on Tuesday offered the surprise announcement that she will step down later this month.

The first Black woman named to lead the state’s top health agency in 2019, Ezike was only on the job for a year when she was thrust into the uncharted waters of the pandemic.

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She would soon find herself advising Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s sometimes controversial mitigation efforts, directing resources among the state’s exhausted hospitals, spearheading an unprecedented vaccination campaign — and providing a voice of calm.

Ezike spoke alongside the governor at 161 news briefings, most of which took place on a daily basis during the early days of the crisis when all but essential workers were ordered to stay indoors. She served as the state’s voice — a bilingual one at that — first urging residents to follow basic COVID-19 precautions, and then pleading for them to continue doing so through five devastating case surges.

“I am so blessed to have been able to bring some measure of comfort to Illinoisans, to quiet some of the chaos and infuse some calm,” a tearful Ezike said Tuesday at Rush University Medical Center in one of her final public appearances as a state official.

“I’m glad that I served as a role model to young girls, girls of color, little Black girls, that they can be leaders in any field. And I’m proud to show our young boys as well — the future men of our society — examples of women in leadership. I’m proud to exemplify that empathy and strength can exist in the same body and in the same breath.”

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike laughs as she gets emotional as he announces she is stepping down at Rush Hospital on Tuesday.

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike laughs as she gets emotional as he announces she is stepping down at Rush Hospital on Tuesday.

Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

Ezike, who will resign March 14, said she decided to step down after a grinding two years to spend more time with her husband and four children.

Pritzker declared Tuesday “Dr. Ngozi Ezike Day,” saying his top health adviser “will go down in the Illinois history books as a woman who changed our state for the better.

“She saved lives, many, many thousands of lives,” Pritzker said. “No number of sleepless nights and endless days could wear her down, or her commitment to think first and foremost of Illinois’ most vulnerable. … I am not putting it lightly when I say that she has had one of the hardest jobs in the world.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker comforts an emotional Dr. Ngozi Ezike as she announces she is stepping down, effective later this month at Rush Hospital.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker comforts an emotional Dr. Ngozi Ezike as she announces she is stepping down, effective later this month at Rush Hospital.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The surprise announcement from Illinois’ top doctor came a day after Pritzker lifted the state’s indoor mask mandate as COVID-19 infections sink to the lowest levels seen since last summer.

Ezike, who previously served as medical director of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, regularly faced criticism from conservative leaders who have long derided Pritzker’s mitigation efforts — from stay-at-home orders and indoor dining shutdowns to masking requirements and vaccination mandates — as too heavy-handed.

Her agency also faced questions for not intervening sooner at a downstate veterans’ home where 36 residents died of the virus, and for being slow to release data on the conditions inside Illinois nursing homes that were decimated in 2020.

But Under Ezike’s leadership, Illinois has fared better overall than most other Midwest states. Almost three-quarters of eligible Illinoisans have completed their initial COVID-19 vaccine series, and more than half have gotten a booster shot.

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike wipes away a tear on Tuesday as she announces she is stepping down, effective later this month.

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike wipes away a tear on Tuesday as she announces she is stepping down, effective later this month.

Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun-Times

Ezike spoke of the more than 3 million infections that have been confirmed since the pandemic hit — and the 32,803 residents who have died with the virus.

“All of the people and all of their stories, I will carry always in my heart,” she said. “I acknowledge and mourn with the families of all the lives lost not just to COVID, but to gun violence, to suicide, to drug overdoses, to racism, to cancer and all the other diseases and ills that public health officials and all of our partners work tirelessly to curb.”

Regan Thomas, president of the Illinois State Medical Society, hailed Ezike’s “extraordinary service.”

“We appreciate her expertise and dedication to the health and well-being of all the citizens of Illinois through this COVID-19 pandemic,” Thomas said in a statement.

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike speaks at Rush Hospital.

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike speaks at Rush Hospital on Tuesday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

On her way out, Ezike encouraged residents to keep masking up — and to show compassion as Illinois enters a new pandemic chapter.

“We still have to be in that mode where if there’s a specific circumstance where you can help a small bit by doing something as simple as wearing a mask, that might help decrease somebody’s chance of getting ill — I hope that’s something that we can collectively still do for our fellow humans,” she said.

Amaal Tokars, the assistant director of the public health department, was named interim director. Pritzker’s office is conducting a nationwide search for Ezike’s permanent replacement.

Mitchell Armentrout reported from Chicago, Taylor Avery from Springfield

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