Battle hardened Illinois health official is shaken by latest Covid-19 surge

The scale of the Covid-19 pandemic is exposing the battle scars of the country’s most hardened public health officials.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike began to cry and paused her remarks — her back to the podium — during a Friday briefing in which she reported new coronavirus deaths and thousands of additional cases.

“Since yesterday, we lost an additional 31 lives — for a total of 9,418 deaths,” she said. “These are people who started with us in 2020 and won’t be with us at the Thanksgiving table.”

Her voice shaky, she added, “To date, we are reporting 3,874 new cases, for a total of 364,033 confirmed cases, since the start of this pandemic. Excuse me, please.”

She wiped a tear with her bare hand and turned away from the podium to compose herself. A man in a mask walked over with a box of tissues. She wiped her eyes and returned to the microphone.

“I’m sorry,” Ezike said, before resuming the grim tally, including 2,498 coronavirus patients in hospitals overnight — 511 in intensive care and 197 on ventilators.

An longtime Cook County internist and pediatrician, Ezike urged state residents to “fight the fatigue” brought on by the enormity of the health crisis.

“If you’re talking about Covid fatigue from having to keep wearing a mask, think about the Covid fatigue for health care workers, respiratory therapists, who are going to have to go through this whole episode again, of trying to fight for people’s lives because we couldn’t figure out how to control this virus by doing some of the simple measures that have been prescribed,” she said.

Chicago this week announced a 10 p.m. curfew for businesses and asked residents to avoid social gatherings of more than six people in an attempt to stem the latest surge of the virus.

Opening her remarks, Ezike said: “I do want to say Happy Friday. But I understand the mental, the social and the emotional toll that this pandemic continues to have on people.”

Her high position does not keep her in “some Covid free bubble exempt from all the pain and the tragedy of this pandemic,” Ezike said.

“So I understand how pandemic fatigue is striking everyone,” she added. “It’s real. People are tired of not seeing their families. They’re tired of postponing the weddings and the other life celebrations. Trying to work from home while also trying to manage kids learning … remotely is a challenge.

“Not being able to visit your loved ones in long-term care and nursing homes, not being able to gather with groups of friends for a night out in your favorite restaurant is getting to be a lot to bear. The way we work, the way we live, the way we play has all changed and the harsh reality is that the sacrifices we’ve made — and that we continue to make — do not have a future expiration date.”

Some people will refute the statistics, Ezike said. But the reality is that coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths are surging again.

“And if you’re tired of hearing it from me, please just ask one of your local physicians in the area,” she said. “They will tell you what they are seeing in their hospitals.”

On Saturday, Illinois reported 6,161 new cases, its highest single-day total since the start of the pandemic. More than 4,000 new cases have been reported during six of the last nine days. There were 118 new Covid-19 patients in hospitals — 49 more in intensive care, an additional 25 on ventilators — and 63 new deaths in the state.