CHICAGO - Dr. Ngozi Ezike is the Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
During normal times, most people could not tell you the name of the person who holds that position. But these are anything but normal times.
The pandemic focused a spotlight on Dr. Ezike because of her daily updates by Governor JB Pritzker’s side, and with that spotlight we witnessed the ups and downs and the overwhelming responsibility that came with the job.
It was December of 2019 when the world first learned of a mysterious illness spreading through Wuhan, China. The first case confirmed in the US was on January 20, 2020 -- a Washington state man in his 30s.
Just a few days later, a 60-year-old Chicago woman became the second confirmed case in the United States.
We asked Dr. Ezike at what point she really became concerned about COVID-19.
"We had the first case, then the second case...I think it was by about March 13 where there might have been 50 new cases. Then it was like, ‘oh boy, we are in for something,’" she said.
It was something no one could foresee, and eventually it affected travel as other countries began imposing lockdowns.
Then, on March 20th, Illinois became the second state behind California to impose a stay-at-home order. In addition, indoor dining was banned and both were was only supposed to last a few weeks.
We reminded Dr. Ezike of how much criticism she and the governor received for imposing the lockdown and closures.
"We were operating with limited knowledge. All we knew were lives were at stake," she said.
We asked Dr. Ezike what her hardest day was during the pandemic, as there was a time she broke down in tears during a daily briefing.
"We were seeing the numbers rise again, seeing history repeat itself," she said. "I felt the anguish and pain of the healthcare workers. That we were going to have to go through this traumatic experience for a second round."
That second round meant more mask mandates, as well as retail and restaurant closures. It was just too much for some Illinoisans to deal with.
Dr. Ezike and her family soon became the target of hateful mail and packages left at her home doorstep by angry strangers.
"I don’t think that public health has ever been something that was so debated or scrutinized," she said. "But clearly we have learned that politics and pandemics don’t go together and unfortunately that marriage has resulted in additional lives lost."
The biggest criticism of the state now is the vaccine rollout. Dr. Ezike says Illinois is making aggressive strides and in time, the vaccines will come.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel and we are waiting for more vaccines, we just need people to continue to be patient and unfortunately that’s a word we have used for so long," she said.