Dr. Sameer Vohra named next director of Illinois Department of Public Health
Vohra, hailed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker as the Illinois Department of Public Health’s “next visionary leader,” will serve as the permanent replacement for Dr. Ngozi Ezike, who was a fixture on Illinois television screens during the pandemic.
A distinguished downstate pediatrician with degrees in law and public policy will become Illinois’ top doctor later this summer, steering the state through the next chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Tuesday.
Dr. Sameer Vohra of the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine will take charge of the state’s Department of Public Health on Aug. 1.
Vohra — who already serves on IDPH’s Illinois State Board of Health, the Illinois Medicaid Advisory Committee and the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council — was hailed by Pritzker as the agency’s “next visionary leader.”
“Dr. Vohra is accomplished in every sense of the word. His experience and education transcend sectors and fields, bringing a well-rounded perspective to this agency,” Pritzker said in a statement announcing the appointment. “As a leader in state and national health policy, I have absolute confidence in Dr. Vohra’s ability to continue shaping a stronger IDPH for the 21st century.”
Vohra is poised to take the IDPH reins from Dr. Amaal Tokars, who has served as interim director of the agency since mid-March following the departure of charismatic former director Dr. Ngozi Ezike. A daily presence on Illinois television screens during public briefings in the early days of the pandemic, Ezike now leads the Sinai Chicago hospital network.
Vohra is the founding chair of the SIU School of Medicine’s Department of Population Science and Policy. He’s also an associate professor of pediatrics, public health, medical humanities and law at the school, and he serves as the interim chair of the Children’s Mental Health Partnership.
Now, he’ll help spearhead the state’s pandemic response as cases and hospitalizations climb yet again in Illinois.
Nearly 5,000 Illinoisans have tested positive for the virus each day over the past week — a 12% increase on average since last month — while the 1,336 people admitted to hospitals with COVID as of Monday night marked a nearly five-month high. And as Omicron’s more infectious BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants gain dominance, roughly one in every five eligible residents still hasn’t been vaccinated against COVID.
“I am humbled that the Governor has entrusted me to serve the people of our State as the 20th Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health,” Vohra said in a statement. “Governor Pritzker, along with the dedicated staff of IDPH, have served our State admirably during the COVID-19 pandemic. I am honored to lead this agency into the future, continuing to keep us safe from emerging illnesses, supporting our public health workers, and promoting wellness in every community across Illinois.”
Vohra, who couldn’t be reached directly for comment, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and science in human culture from Northwestern University before completing a residency in pediatrics at the University of Chicago, where he also netted a master’s degree in public policy. Vohra earned a medical doctorate and a law degree at SIU.
Among a slew of professional accomplishments, Vohra was named a Fulbright scholar in 2009 and a Presidential Leadership scholar in 2020. He has also served on the national committees for the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Medical Association.
Tokars, who has kept a low profile as acting IDPH head during her four-month tenure, called it her “great honor to serve the people of Illinois and Governor Pritzker as leader of IDPH during this interim period at a time when we are facing public health challenges on a number of fronts.”
IDPH oversees about 200 programs ranging from vaccine allocation and hospital standards to recreational facility safety and milk farm inspection.