Public Health Chief’s Emotional Response to Pandemic Draws Praise

A little more than two minutes into a routine daily press briefing, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, stood at a podium and recited the latest grim statistics on the COVID-19 pandemic in her state.

The previous day, 31 people in Illinois had died of COVID-19, bringing the total then to 9,418 deaths. “These are people who started with us in 2020 and won’t be with us at the Thanksgiving table,” she said.

Ezike paused for a few seconds as she looked down at her notes, then resumed reciting the dire toll: “Today, we are reporting 3,874 new cases, for a total of 364,033 confirmed cases since the start of this pandemic. Excuse me please.”

The doctor looked to her left for a moment, then turned around until her back was to the podium and the TV cameras. She put her hands to her eyes. A few feet away, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker asked an aide to get Ezike a tissue.

After dabbing her eyes, Ezike turned back to the podium, 17 seconds after she’d turned around to gather herself. She resumed reciting the dire toll the pandemic is exacting on her state.

[Read: Unsung Heroes Fight the COVID-19 Pandemic.]

Ezike’s emotional response during the late October press conference made news around the world — and sparked a reaction that pleasantly surprised the physician. She’s been inundated with thousands of cards, notes and emails praising her display of humanity.

“I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the support I received from the public,” Ezike says. “Some were from state government partners or other agencies. I’m emboldened by the support. It’s been touching to have complete strangers take the time to find my work address and send a personal note or card.”

Her boss, Pritzker, was among those who are encouraging.

Moments after the news conference ended, Ezike apologized to the governor for taking time to regain her composure.

“He was so supportive,” Ezike says. “He said, ‘You don’t have to apologize for being a human.'”

Illinois has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. On Nov. 13, state health officials announced 15,415 new COVID-19 cases, a daily record. Cumulatively, the state has recorded 574,722 COVID-19 cases and 11,170 deaths attributable to the pandemic.

COVID-19 is exacting a particularly terrible toll in Chicago. Beginning Nov. 16, authorities requested that people in Chicago and Cook County shelter in place at home as much as possible. They implored people to only leave their homes for essential work or to go to doctor’s appointments. Local officials also asked people not to gather with others indoors unless they live in the same household, including during Thanksgiving.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot tweeted that as of Nov. 13, 1 in 18 Chicagoans had active COVID-19 infections.

City officials have also announced new restrictions on gatherings, both indoors and outdoors. Social gatherings and meetings — such as funerals, birthday parties and weddings — are capped at 10 people, no matter the location. This limit doesn’t apply to businesses such as retail stories, movie theaters and gyms.

The sheer enormity of the pandemic and its tragic consequences overtook Ezike’s emotions during her now-famous news conference, she says.

“I was thinking about the totality,” she says. “Just the unthinkable numbers of people affected by the losses. I am not immune to the pain of what these number represent. Every day, we’re all facing and experiencing this trauma.”

[Read: Speech-Language Pathologists Join the COVID-19 Front Lines.]

Ezike assumed her post as director of the state’s public health department in February of 2019. Fighting the pandemic has been Ezike’s primary mission since January, when the first COVID-19 case was reported in the U.S.

Every day, Ezike participates in a series of Zoom and socially distanced, in-person meetings related to the fight against COVID-19. In addition to meeting regularly with her staff and the public health department’s senior leadership team, Ezike is in constant contact with officials who spearhead local health departments throughout the state.

Asked what is needed to slow the spread of the virus in her state, Ezike notes that Illinois took some bold steps early in the pandemic that were effective, such as shutting down many non-essential businesses and urging people to shelter in place except for necessary appointments and errands.

But, she notes, Illinois is surrounded by states that have had higher levels of COVID-19 transmission, and the virus doesn’t care about state boundaries. Also, public health officials are battling human nature — the desire of people to get out of their homes and see friends and family. “Pandemic fatigue has caused a big resurgence (of the virus) in every nook and cranny of our state,” she says.

What her state needs now to blunt the spread of the virus is “a ground game,” Ezike says. “Right now it’s about getting people to change their behavior, which is one of the hardest things to do,” she says.

That means persuading more people to wear masks and to refrain from gathering with friends and family indoors during the upcoming holiday season. People need to understand that they can curtail the spread of the virus by limiting their usual activities.

“We need sustained motivation and sustained support,” Ezike says. Toward that goal, her department is creating a “community ambassador” program, recruiting PTA moms, student council presidents, religious leaders and well-known local celebrities to use their community status and social media footprint to share and support COVID-19 information, guidance and updates.

“We can get through this and be better off in the long run,” she says. “This is when we have to double down on the austere things we’ve been doing. We have to keep wearing or mask. We can do this for longer and we have to do this for longer.”

[Read: Mother-Daughter Nurse Team Both Treating Coronavirus Pandemic.]

Ezike, who is in her 40s, lives in the Chicago area with her family.

The collective response she’s received after her emotional display “was definitely a clear lesson that it’s OK to be a human,” she says. “You don’t have to fear showing feelings. People want to know that their leaders are caring people, not just smart people but caring people.”

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