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Illinois Department Of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike Warns Hospitals Are At Crisis Point With COVID-19, Vaccination And Masking Are A Must

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike warned Friday that hospitals are at a crisis point amid the current COVID-19 surge, and people must get vaccinated, wear masks, and take precautions.

Two years into the pandemic, Ezike said the situation is worse than when the pandemic began.

"The numbers of people with COVID alone are higher today than they have ever been in our two-year journey through COVID, so we are seeing more patients than ever before, but with less staff – because staff are sick, staff have retired, staff have moved on because of the ongoing mental health trauma from this enduring crisis – so it is a completely worse situation than what we've dealt with ever before," Ezike said.

There is conjecture that the current wave driven by the Omicron variant will peak next month or even sooner – in line with a steep rise and fall seen in South Africa. Ezike said she hopes that is the case, but there is no way to know for sure.

"We've been saying that word and saying we're going to get there. My crystal ball is not working. I hope that the estimations are right – that we are weeks, you know, weeks away from a crest," she said. "We sure need it, because we absolutely are going to run out of beds in short order, and so we hope that there's going to be some reprieve in sight."

Meanwhile, there has been a great deal of debate in recent days over whether kids are safe in school during the surge. The Chicago Public Schools are currently in a showdown with the Chicago Teachers Union over the latter organization's call to move to remote learning, and some schools in other districts have gone ahead and moved fully to remote learning.

Ezike said schools indeed can be safe, but it depends on whether mitigations are being followed.

"You know, it would depend on what school and what mitigations are in place in school. If a school has all the staff, teachers, students, masked – as they're supposed to be and as the CDC recommends – that is a safe place. That is where you'll see the most masking. I know at many schools, that is a case, and so it has been a safe place," Ezike said, "and even published research out of Illinois in terms of when people may have COVID or were exposed, there wasn't a lot transmission in school. But again, it counts on people being properly masked – everyone being masked in those settings; in those classrooms."

Ezike said the bottom line is that everyone needs to get vaccinated and wear masks.

"I know a lot of people – the majority of people in the state have been vaccinated – almost two thirds. But now, I need those two thirds to try to talk and reach out to the people who are not vaccinated, and share why you've been vaccinated. We need people to be vaccinated and boosted, and we need people to be masked," Ezike said, "and we need to do this quickly, or else we're going to compromise the health of every individual in the state – for COVID- or non-COVID-related matters."

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