Abortion, COVID-19, monkeypox all on new state health chief’s rounds: ‘Impossible not to feel the weight of these challenges’
Gov. J.B. Pritzker called Dr. Sameer Vohra “laser-focused on our most vulnerable populations, especially our youth … To say he is a committed public servant would be an understatement.”
Confronted with an ongoing pandemic, an emerging viral outbreak and bans on abortion in neighboring states, Illinois’ new top doctor on Thursday acknowledged “the weight of these challenges” in his first week on the job — but vowed to guide residents through “a moment where it is just hard to feel protected.”
Dr. Sameer Vohra, who officially took his post as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health on Monday after Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced his appointment last month, said the agency will face those challenges with “one overarching and all-encompassing goal: to prevent and protect the public from disease and injury.”
“We are living in a moment where it is just hard to feel protected,” Vohra said during his first public appearance at a South Side news conference alongside the governor. “We are two and a half years since the start of the COVID 19 pandemic, and although we are learning to live with the virus, my heart continues to mourn and grieve for the families of the 34,388 Illinoisans we have lost to this terrible disease.
“Beyond other emerging illnesses like monkeypox, we are challenged with an epidemic of gun violence, a mental health crisis and a growing national threat to the protection of reproductive rights,” said Vohra, who’s the founding chair of the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine’s Department of Population Science and Policy. “It’s impossible not to feel the weight of these challenges.”
“Under my leadership, the Department of Public Health will serve the people of Illinois as your resource and as your guide, providing critical information and offering services for individuals and families that will help them lead the healthiest and most productive lives,” Vohra said.
A Chicago native who completed his residency at the University of Chicago, Vohra lives in Springfield where he has taught pediatrics, public health, medical humanities and law at SIU.
The distinguished public health expert took the IDPH reins from interim director Dr. Amaal Tokars, who had held the post since March when popular former director Dr. Ngozi Ezike stepped down after leading the state through the first two years of the pandemic.
“I want to build on their accomplishments by emphasizing the scientific process, evidence-based decision-making and a focus on health equity,” Vohra said. “COVID-19 continues to teach us many things, but the most important lesson is that a virus that should have infected and harmed all Illinoisans in a similar manner did not. The reasons for this had little to do with the virus, and much more to do with the social and structural determinants of health, disinformation and a rejection of scientific evidence.”
Pritzker called Vohra “laser-focused on our most vulnerable populations, especially our youth … To say he is a committed public servant would be an understatement.”
Vohra takes over as COVID hospitalizations have risen across Illinois to the highest levels seen in more than five months, as Chicago has become the epicenter of the U.S. monkeypox outbreak and as the state becomes a bastion for people seeking abortions from bordering states where the treatment is largely being outlawed.
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Vohra commended Pritzker’s decision Thursday to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates by 20% for abortion providers facing an influx of out-of-state patients.
The new public health director said it helps lower-income people “who deserve the same access to family-planning care as anyone else and who are often the most in need of health care services.”
As for whether he’ll have as much of a public presence as Ezike did during her tenure — especially when she was a fixture on Illinois television screens during daily COVID updates early in the pandemic — Vohra joked: “I’m happy to be here as much as the governor and the general public needs me, but hopefully you don’t see me every day.”