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Celebrating Black History Makers: Dr. Ngozi Ezike Has Been Illinois' Guide During The COVID-19 Pandemic

CHICAGO (CBS) -- We are certainly living in unprecedented times – as over the past year, we've witnessed immeasurable suffering, from racial injustices as well as from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through it all, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike has been the calm, yet commanding voice we've needed over the year. Ezike is a Black History maker this Black History Month, and she sat down with CBS 2 Investigator Dorothy Tucker.

We have barely known the names of many past state public health directors. But Dr. Ezike has been guiding the state through the worst health crisis in recent history across the course of 151 press briefings – many of them daily.

This director, who happens to be the first Black woman to hold the position, was thrust into the spotlight.

Tucker: "When you took this job, I mean, nobody could have foreseen."

Ezike: "Oh no, no, the governor knew! He said: 'There's a pandemic around the corner, are you still good?' And I was like: 'Oh, bring it on! Bring it on!'"

She was joking about that, of course. Dr. Ezike was appointed to her role in January 2019, when the pandemic was more than a year in the future.

But as to Dr. Ezike being ready to step in during a time of crisis? That's very much real.

Ezike's résumé redefines the word "impressive." She was high school salutatorian, graduated with honors from Harvard University, got her M.D. from UCSD, served her residency at Rush University, and went on to become an internist and pediatrician. She is also fluent in five languages - English, French, Swahili, Portuguese, and Spanish - and has always conducted her daily coronavirus medical briefing in both English and Spanish.

What is not on the résumé, but is equally important, is her job as wife, mother of four, and enforcer of the pandemic rules.

"They haven't rebelled. No one has run away," Ezike said. "So I think we're OK."

The rules are unpopular with some. The ban on sports prompted students and parents to protest near her home.

"That wasn't a problem," Ezike said. "They were far enough from my home."

What was a problem was the emails and the threats. When Tucker asked Ezike what one of the most painful emails she received was, she hesitated as she thought about that pain and the discussion moved on.

But of course, the public has also provided Dr. Ezike with words that make her smile – such as those found on a card that an Illinois nurse sent.

"Thank you for all you do. Thank you for not giving up. We do depend on you," the card read.

While she appreciates the personal notes, Dr. Ezike is quick to credit her staff.

"I don't want to be the headline. It's about the work," Ezike said. "But there are 1,200 people who are doing the work."

And it is stressful work - setting policies to slow the spread of the virus, stop the deaths, and equitably distribute the vaccines.

"We've taken tough decisions that are just not popular," Ezike said.

But they are decisions she stands by despite the backlash, like one of her heroes – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"He was on the FBI's Top Ten list. They put cameras and bugged his home. They called him an enemy of the state," Ezike said. "So at the time that you're doing things, it may not be appreciated, and obviously, history has been very kind to Martin Luther King Jr., and I hope history will look back on this time, and we'll be able to bring up the work that public health has done over this most incredible time."

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