Illinois’ Top Doctor Says An Increase In COVID-19 Cases Is ‘Inevitable’

photo of Dr. Ngozi Ezike
Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, speaks at a January news conference in Chicago. She joined WBEZ’s Reset on Monday to discuss the state’s ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic. Teresa Crawford / Associated Press
photo of Dr. Ngozi Ezike
Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, speaks at a January news conference in Chicago. She joined WBEZ’s Reset on Monday to discuss the state’s ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic. Teresa Crawford / Associated Press

Illinois’ Top Doctor Says An Increase In COVID-19 Cases Is ‘Inevitable’

The doctor is in, and her advice: maybe never shake hands again.

Since the beginning of this pandemic, Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health Dr. Ngozi Ezike has led and shaped the state’s public health response to COVID-19. Every day for months, she stood at the podium alongside Governor JB Pritzker with updates on confirmed cases, new information on the virus and best practices to stay safe.

Illinois is still in its first week of its Phase Four reopening — but it comes as major spikes of COVID-19 pop up in states across the country. Reset checked in with Dr. Ezike on how worried she is about how those spikes could impact Illinois, and what she’ll be watching in the coming months.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

On concerns over states that saw spikes in cases after reopening efforts

Dr. Ngozi Ezike: You know, we have been saying [this] from the beginning, and I'm so proud to have a governor that's all about the data.

So while we have data in our state that says everything has been moving in the right direction, we do see what is happening in other states. And knowing that our state doesn't have, you know, borders around it and that we connect physically to six other states and we know that Illinois is a major target destination for tourism and summer travel, we really have to be paying attention to what's happening outside of our state — and try to see if we can glean some information and maybe make some important pivots so that we don't go the same way as some of these other states.

Justin Kaufmann: The Phase Four reopening seemed to be successful this weekend, but there seems to be still this culture around what being safe, socially distancing and protecting yourself and others looks like. And we see this conversation happening politically and culturally around the country when it comes to wearing masks and socially distancing and keeping in place the restrictions that we just went through for the last three to four months. How important is that message? How important is it for you to be a part of that conversation?

Ezike: I'm happy to lend my voice to that conversation because it's critical that we understand the facts and follow facts. The opening of our economy, of our states — it can't be done without what we call the non-pharmaceutical intervention, these mitigation strategies, such as masking and washing your hands, keeping your distance. They are part of the plan. If we have the opening without those strategies, I already know which way we're heading and it's not what anybody wants.

And so if we don't do both together, it's not going to bode well for us. Obviously, it's easier to control the spread of the virus when everyone is indoors. And we know that there's not really the appetite for that. We're trying to forge a different path forward.

But that involves, you know, slowly opening up, then keeping all these strategies in place, following the data to make sure that we haven't moved too quickly. But you can't have the reopening without the masking and the distancing. It's just — the formula doesn't compute.

On the possibility of a second wave

Ezike: The goal is to minimize what comes up. I don't think anyone can argue that the sheltering in place wasn't effective. And I don't think it's reasonable to think that with places open at 50 percent capacity, even those that are 25 capacity, and people heading back to work. Even with social distancing and masking, that will not be as effective as being at home and minimizing those interactions.

So we expect that there will be some increase. But we don't want it to just start to grow [exponentially], like what we saw several months ago. So we are accepting increases are inevitable. But it's the amount of increase that we just don't want it to get to an untenable situation where we're actually even threatening health care capacity and just having this exponential caseload.

On erring on the side of caution

Ezike: Just because something is open doesn't mean we have to go and partake of it. I think things are open, but people still have the right to stay home if there's something that's not essential. Maybe they will opt for a smaller gathering and then a gathering of 50. Again, we know that outdoors is much safer than indoors. So if you have an option, maybe pick the safer option. There's still a choice in this. In addition to wearing the mask, in addition to maintaining, you know, six feet of distance, there's also the ability to turn down invitations — if we think it's going to put people in an unsafe situation.

Meha Ahmad is a producer for Reset. You can follow her at @Meha.