With COVID-19 cases rising, Pritzker still searching for public health chief to succeed Ezike, a ‘hero during this pandemic’

Asked whether the state would consider another indoor mask mandate, as other U.S. cities respond to rising cases, Pritzker said, “I think that towns, cities across Illinois, not to mention across the country, should do what they feel is necessary in their communities to keep people safe.”

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

Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike announces she is stepping down effective March 14.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday said a search to replace Dr. Ngozi Ezike as the head of the state’s Department of Public Health has not been completed — even as another resurgence of COVID-19 is causing concern among health officials in other parts of the country.

Dr. Amaal Tokars, the assistant director of Illinois’ health department, has been filling the top post on an interim basis since Ezike stepped down on March 14.

Ezike — who became a household name in the state — was heralded as a steady and sympathetic leader during the first two years of the pandemic and often wore the toll of the human devastation on her face during news conferences that were a daily occurrence early on.

“To follow in Dr. Ezike’s footsteps is certainly a difficult thing to do. She really is, I hope to all of you, certainly to me, a hero during this pandemic, and I admire her greatly. We are looking all across the state of Illinois, as well as the nation to find a replacement,” Pritzker said at an unrelated event to celebrate youth investments in the soon-to-be-signed state budget.

Acting Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Amaal Tokars speaks during a virtual briefing Tuesday.

Acting Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Amaal Tokars speaks during a virtual briefing Tuesday.

Illinois Department of Public Health

“We want to just find the best person for the job. Public health, as you can imagine, the people who’ve been in public health are exhausted … and it’s been challenging for everybody.

“So, we want to make sure that we find somebody who’s got the vim and vigor for the future, that’s going to be able to help us overcome whatever challenges come with any future variants that may come.”

The Democratic governor, facing a reelection battle in November, was also asked whether the state would consider another indoor mask mandate, as other U.S. cities respond to rising cases caused by the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant known as BA.2.

The city of Philadelphia on Monday announced a reinstatement of its mandate after lifting it a little over a month ago. Other states in the Northeast are also reporting an uptick in cases.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker removes his mask at a news conference last year.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker removes his mask at a news conference last year.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday also announced a two-week extension of a mask requirement for airplanes and public transportation. The New York Times reported Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the new White House COVID response coordinator, said additional time would allow the CDC to assess whether the subvariant is going to become a “ripple or a wave” in the country. The federal requirement was set to expire in five days.

Pritzker lifted Illinois’ mask mandate Feb. 28.

Last week, four southern Illinois counties hit the “high transmission” threshold set by the CDC, meaning masks are recommended for people gathering indoors in Saline, Gallatin, Hardin and Pope counties.

On Wednesday, the governor said the state is paying close attention to hospitalizations, but he’s encouraged by the number of vaccinations and the availability of therapeutics that are helping infected people recover more quickly.

COVID-19 transmission is considered low in counties marked green on this map, and high in counties marked orange.

COVID-19 transmission is considered low in counties marked green on this map, and high in counties marked orange. It is based on CDC data as of April 13, 2022.

Illinois Public Health Department

“I think that towns, cities across Illinois, not to mention across the country, should do what they feel is necessary in their communities to keep people safe,” Pritzker said. “But I feel like right now — and listening to IDPH and our experts on the outside of IDPH — that we’re in a pretty good place.”

Illinois reported 2,060 new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, bringing the seven-day average to 1,728. Before earlier this week, the last time that average topped 1,700 was six weeks ago. But hospitalizations remain relatively low across the state compared to skyrocketing admissions and patients in intensive care units in January.

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