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Fighting COVID-19 Is A Struggle, Illinois' Public Health Director Says

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And we have the director of public health for the state of Illinois on the line with us this morning, Dr. Ngozi Ezike. Doctor, thanks for being here.

NGOZI EZIKE: A pleasure to be with you. Thank you for having me.

GREENE: Well, just listening to that story there, I wonder - I want to pose the question to you. I mean, how much harder is your job if you have local authorities, say, encouraging people to defy state orders?

EZIKE: No, it's quite a struggle. We want to focus our energy on educating the public and getting the right data to them. But instead, we're now dividing our efforts on two fronts, trying to combat people who are actively working against what will keep our community safe. It's a continuous struggle.

GREENE: I know you've been pleading with people to wear masks, which, of course, is a plea that we have heard from public health officials for months now. Are people listening to you?

EZIKE: People are definitely listening. I would say probably more than half the state is listening and implementing. But because of how the mask wearing works, you really need universal adoption. And so we need more and more people to hear and understand and buy into this really important mitigation measure, and we're not there yet. Unfortunately, the mixed messaging has not helped public health cause at all. And the desire by people to believe in things which are comforting but not true is incredibly strong right now.

GREENE: What are you talking about when you say people are believing things that are comforting but not necessarily true?

EZIKE: Well, people are happy to believe that you don't have to change anything that you're doing - you can go back to life as you were living it pre-COVID; you don't have to limit your gatherings; you don't have to wear a mask; you don't have to keep all this distance. That - you know, everybody would love to be in the pre-COVID world. We're not there, and so thinking that you can is really counter to the progress that we're trying to make.

GREENE: You have said that this is personal for you. I understand you've lost some relatives yourself to COVID.

EZIKE: You know, I can't imagine that there are many people who haven't been touched by this. I've been fortunate in my nuclear family not to have lost anyone. But definitely, if you extend out to the extended family, we have had sickness and death. But it's just - I feel for all the lives that are lost - you know, people who work in government, people who are relatives of co-workers. There's just been a lot of loss. And I think as a human, we feel all of that, even if it's not someone that I reside in my home with.

GREENE: You know, I watched the video of your press conference from a few days ago, and it looked like you had to take a pause. Someone brought you some Kleenex. I mean, you've been helping the state through this pandemic for months now, doing, you know, countless press conferences like that, I can imagine. What about this moment hit you?

EZIKE: You know, I still struggle to really articulate. I think it was a visceral reaction, probably a culmination of just all of the frustration. I daresay, you know, anger, you know, anxiety, the pandemic fatigue just coming up with some kind of, you know, cathartic release. I didn't - I wouldn't have ever chosen to have such a public display, but I felt it coming on, couldn't suppress it. And I was at a loss. But I've heard from just lots of supporting - supportive individuals that they feel the same. And so I guess I let something out for all of us because I think we're all feeling the exact same thing.

GREENE: Let me add my voice to that. I think we've all had those moments where we just get overtaken by all of it. So to see someone in your field go through that, it is somehow reassuring.

EZIKE: Happy to serve in that way (laughter). I'm willing to do whatever it takes. It's been difficult to get the message across to everyone, but I'm hoping that eventually, just with days, people will understand that tomorrow still needs to be written, and each of us gets to be an author and use our authorship to create a story not of continued doom but of actually turning this pandemic around.

GREENE: Dr. Ngozi Ezike is the top health official in the state of Illinois. We really appreciate your time this morning. Thanks so much.

EZIKE: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.