Dr. Ngozi Ezike is — slowly — easing back into pre-pandemic habits much like everyone else in Illinois.
After telling the Chicago Sun-Times last June she’d sworn off handshakes, hugs from friends and haircuts, the head of the state’s public health department said she’s getting back into those social situations now that Gov. J.B. Pritzker has lifted most coronavirus restrictions.
She’s comfortable hugging friends she knows are fully vaccinated. Around those she doesn’t know well, she’s “a little shy” when someone extends their hand.
“It’s tough,” Ezike told the Sun-Times on Wednesday. “I’ve found myself in several social situations where I offer an elbow because ‘I don’t know you.’ But I think as the numbers get lower and ... with the test positivity and the number of cases ... we’re in as safe a time today as we have been in this COVID journey.
“So, if there was a time that we could think about being more intimate with people, and shaking hands ... it probably is definitely now.”
Nearly a week after the state fully reopened, Ezike said she’s “pretty confident” state residents will get to “enjoy a fantastic summer” but emphasized the pandemic isn’t over.
She and the team that’s led the state’s pandemic response are watching countries where the vaccination rate is low, places where the virus could flourish and possibly lead to new variants.
“With the threat of that, the pandemic can’t be over,” Ezike said. “I have to emphasize how much our safety, and the pandemic being over, depends on everyone around the world being vaccinated.”
Ezike wouldn’t predict when that might be accomplished but said vaccines do largely protect from recent variants.
She expects to see some increased virus transmission during the summer months but doesn’t expect to see numbers that threaten hospital capacity.
How high the numbers go, Ezike said, “depends on how many more people continue to get vaccinated and ... how much masking is still promoted in some of those higher-risk settings.”
“We really know that the vaccinations have done tremendous work and that’s why we’re not stopping the push to get more and more people vaccinated — even if it’s just a few people a day compared to a few months ago,” Ezike said. “Every single dose matters, and it’s really helping us have the lowest number of cases per day that we’ve ever seen.”
The department this week stopped issuing daily updates about new COVID-19 cases, infection rates and deaths. Instead, officials will release a weekly report on Fridays.
Ezike said there are still daily checkpoints, but the cadence of meetings has changed from every day to two to three times a week.
The department will begin to shift some of its focus to areas of public health that haven’t received the usual level of attention “because so many people were siphoned off to do this pandemic work,” Ezike said.
Among the 200-plus programs and initiatives likely to receive more attention are maternal mortality, substance abuse and opioids, and the state’s response to the HIV epidemic. The state made a pledge to get HIV under control by 2030 and “we have to make sure we’re doing everything around that to still keep up with that timeline,” Ezike said.
Navigating the state through the pandemic has raised Ezike’s profile beyond the office she leads. Maybe two years ago, people didn’t really know what an epidemiologist did, Ezike said.
A weekend tennis player, Ezike said sometimes, while she’s waiting to play a game, someone will ask if they’ve played together before because she “looks familiar.”
“Sometimes at the store, I’ve had people say ‘Oh, your voice sounds eerily like Dr. Ezike’s’ and I’m like ‘Oh, I get that sometimes,’” she said.
There have also been requests for autographs and selfies, which Ezike called “funny.”
Most who have recognized her have been “gracious and kind and offered kind words of support.” Then there was the time a restaurant owner said “I know who you are ... and I don’t agree with what you did.” That led to a discussion about the restaurant business being hurt by the state’s pandemic guidelines.
Ezike takes that in stride.
“I’m always open. I know there’s no way to go through an experience like this and think that everyone will be satisfied with the plans that were implemented,” Ezike said. “I think at the end of the day people do appreciate that it was an impossible role. And that the governor has had an impossible role, and that it was an impossible situation no one could have ever predicted.”
Asked if she’d consider a run for office, Ezike laughed.
“I don’t know what about this experience would make someone think that I would want to go into office,” Ezike said. “Politics and pandemics don’t seem to go well together and so that’s been hard and I realized, more so now than ever, how challenging politics is. The pandemic is hard enough ... that’s just a whole nother world and not one that I’ve really thought about, not one that I’ve, obviously, prepared for, and one that seems even more thankless.”