Dr. Ezike’s last day leading the department will be March 14.
"She has had one of the hardest jobs in the world. There is something particularly heroic about the service of an extraordinary individual who did not seek greatness, but found it anyway," Gov. JB Pritzker said during a news conference Tuesday. "It is a change that I’m loath to accept. But perhaps she can finally get a good night’s sleep and precious time with her husband and four kids, and boy it is well deserved."
"She saved lives. Many, many thousands of lives," Pritzker added.
Ezike, the first Black woman to lead the state’s top health agency, stood beside Pritzker for more than 160 coronavirus updates, most of them during the early days of the crisis when residents were ordered to stay indoors — one of the COVID-19 mitigation strategies Pritzker implemented at Ezike’s recommendation.
"No number of sleepless nights and endless days could wear her down, or her commitment to think first and foremost of Illinois’ most vulnerable [residents]," Pritzker said.
Pritzker said Ezike "will go down in the Illinois history books as a woman who changed our state for the better. She saved lives, many, many thousands of lives."
Pritzker also said he has issued a proclamation declaring March 1 "Dr. Ngozi Ezike Day" in the state of Illinois.
A tearful Ezike called it "an honor to be able to share these updates, share information help create policy."
Ezike, who has degrees from Harvard and the University of California, was hired in 2019.
"I did not know fully what I was getting into. But I had ideals that I believed in, that would be my guiding light, my North Star," she said. "One is that believing that everyone deserves the opportunity to achieve their best health. A second is that intentionality is required to address long forsaken needs of selected populations — that’s now referred to simply as equity.
And third, that to best care for a diverse population, like we are so blessed to have in Illinois, you need a team that reflects that diversity to create the most robust and inclusive solutions," Ezike said.
The surprise announcement from Illinois’ top doctor came a day after Pritzker lifted the state’s indoor mask mandate as infections sink to the lowest levels seen since last summer.
Under Ezike’s leadership, almost three-quarters of eligible Illinoisans have completed their initial COVID-19 vaccine series, and more than half have gotten a booster shot.
But Ezike highlighted the more than 3 million infections that have been confirmed since the pandemic hit — and the 32,803 residents who have died with the virus.
"All of the people and all of their stories, I will carry always in my heart," she said. "I acknowledge and mourn with the families of all the lives lost not just to COVID, but to gun violence, to suicide, to drug overdoses, to racism, to cancer and all the other diseases and ills that public health officials and all of our partners work tirelessly to curb."
Ezike encouraged residents to keep masking up — and to show compassion as Illinois enters a new pandemic chapter.
"We still have to be in that mode where if there’s a specific circumstance where you can help a small bit by doing something as simple as wearing a mask, that might help decrease somebody’s chance of getting ill — I hope that’s something that we can collectively still do for our fellow humans," she said.
Amaal Tokars, the assistant director of the public health department, was named interim director.
Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.