“We are building the plane while we are trying to fly it. “
– Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Director of the Illinois Department of Health
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A few weeks ago, Dr. Ngozi Ezike’s four children – ages 17, 16, 13 and 11 – sat her down to make a PowerPoint presentation that they had prepared.
It was a detailed assessment of how she was doing in her job as head of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
“It was like,” Well, we are really proud that you are doing this important work. It’s cool that you’re on TV, ”recalls Dr. Ezike,“ but now we’re totally overwhelmed. “
Their main complaint: she was never home again. As family friends filled the void, checked them in and dropped treats from time to time, they felt like they hadn’t seen their mom for weeks. And when she got home, she called late.
“They were breaking it down for me from their point of view,” said Dr. Ezike in a recent telephone interview, which took place on the same day as the birthday of his youngest child. ” It hurts. “
“But I hope they will understand better over time why I had to sacrifice so much time away from them. “
As appointed officials, state health directors generally play a behind-the-scenes role, identifying, tracking and planning interventions for public health risks.
But this crisis has catapulted them into the spotlight, alongside governors and mayors, quickly transforming them into some of the most recognizable faces in the country. (Ohio’s Dr. Amy Acton, for example, has become something of a local icon, with fan clubs and products dedicated to him.) It is up to state health directors to correlate the data and propose policies for advise governors and the rest of the world. include things like when to close, how to re-open businesses safely, and where to set up test sites.
But, in a combustible environment of anxiety and more and more partisan clashes over the emergency measures put in place, each of their gestures and declarations is scrutinized and dissected from all angles.
“I’m trying to stick with the right thing to do and let the politicians do what they have to do,” said Dr. Ezike. “No one is sure of the exact route – we build the plane while we try to fly it. “
The criticism his team receives – and there are many, in particular the reopening of the economy – is counterbalanced by the “many letters and cards of support and encouragement” sent to her offices, she added.
These days, Dr. Ezike’s route of consecutive meetings and calls starts at 6 a.m., when she receives daily updates from local health services and emergency management and alternative care sites . Then there is the televised press conference with Governor J.B. Pritzker, where Dr. Ezike provides critical updates and answers questions from the media. On certain days, Dr. Ezike’s team receives calls from the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health directors from other states. Her day doesn’t end until around 11 p.m., she said, when she tries to check her emails.
“But I’m fighting with it,” she said.
Illinois, while not the country’s worst hot spot, has undoubtedly been hit hard.
Dr. Ezike visited the couple at the hospital and it became clear to them what kinds of problems the country was about to face.
“We were waiting for the return of the official results of the C.D.C. because we weren’t able to run the test yet in our Illinois public health labs, “she recalls. “The gentleman planned to” free himself “from the isolation of the hospital – he feared he would miss work and not provide for his family while he was isolated. “
“At these moments, I gathered my first idea of the challenge of containing this virus and how his personal economic or financial situation would affect decisions that would affect not only the individual, but the community as a whole.”
To date, there have been more than 100,000 cases of coronavirus in Illinois and more than 4,900 deaths, bringing the state’s death rate to around 39 deaths per 100,000. This number is well below the country’s top three hotspots: New York, which has a death rate of 150 deaths per 100,000, New Jersey, where the rate is approximately 125 per 100,000, and Connecticut, which has a rate of approximately 105 per 100,000.
These concerns have always been at the heart of our concerns, said Dr. Ezike. Before becoming the Illinois director of health, she spent 15 years in the Cook County public health department and was medical director of the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, so she had seen the socioeconomic disparities yawning between communities and how this gap can impact. on the impact on access to health care.
“This virus has not created health disparities,” she said. “It’s just fattening them up. “
From the start, she trained her eye on the most vulnerable, including essential workers, many of whom came from minority communities. It has incorporated their needs into all of the State’s response proposals, since obtaining P.P.E. to those who need it most to deliver targeted messages and information. Dr. Ezike herself updates at the daily press conference in English and Spanish.
The virus has also reached Dr. Ezike’s own circle: extended family members and colleagues’ family members have been infected, she said.
In February, before the coronavirus upset the world as we know it, Dr. Ezike lost his father, an immigrant from Nigeria who spent most of his life in Los Angeles.
“I buried him. We had very elaborate ceremonies for him in three cities and two continents, ”she said on the phone.
She added, “But I think about how people can’t do this now and how difficult it can be. I think about it every time I think about the deaths we report every day. “