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Illinois’ top doctor reflects on two years of pandemic management

Teresa Crawford

Illinois detected its first COVID-19 case on Jan. 24, 2020.

Since then, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike has been on the front lines in the battle against the virus, which has killed more than 30,000 in the state.

Alex Degman talked to Dr. Ezike this week, as the state’s new case rate declines from its omicron peak. She’s hopeful about the trajectory of the state, thanks in part to the lessons she’s learned so far. Below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Degman: You first started holding daily briefings on COVID a couple of years ago. Could you have even imagined back then how we’d be talking about this virus two years later?

Ezike: No, of course I would not have wanted to be able to imagine talking about it in this frame. I mean, I’d be happy to talk about something that happened before and how, you know, we’ve done so well with it now. And now it’s not dominating everything. But yeah, there’s still hope because as we start this year three, I absolutely think there will be a better outlook than what we’ve had for the first two.

Degman: The virus is obviously different now than it was two years ago. So, how is the virus interacting with us now as the omicron variant versus when it was first detected?

Ezike: Yeah, I think there are some key differences. There have been unique properties to each of the variants. [One of the] hallmarks of this omicron variant [is] the excessive transmissibility. I think over the winter break, almost everyone knew someone who was actively sick, or [the virus] went through a household or a family that they knew of. I think another thing that was a little different compared to the others is that more than other variants, it infected people who had been vaccinated and fully vaccinated, and so we did see some of that vaccine evasion — but not to the point where people were getting hospitalized which is, you know, we thank God for.

Degman: The omicron subvariant BA.2 has now been detected in Illinois — are you concerned about this? Should we be worried?

Ezike: I think it’s too early to tell just exactly how we should feel about this. We’ve only identified a single case here in the state thus far. So there’s still a lot to learn in terms of the properties of this new variant. We know it is off of the lineage of omicron, but it does have a significant number of different new mutations compared to omicron.

Degman: Do you foresee the state changing the guidance going forward for what’s considered fully vaccinated with Moderna’s full FDA approval?

Ezike: I mean, that’s inevitable, I think, because we are understanding that these successive variants are more and more evading the vaccine immunity. And so if we want to minimize these ongoing surges, it behooves us to be up to date. And, you know, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s every five months. We need to follow and see, you know, when is it that people seem to start picking up more infections than they did at the beginning of the vaccine and figure out what the timeline is. Eventually, there will probably be other vaccines that maybe will last longer, maybe there’ll be a multivalent vaccine where you can have something that would protect against different kinds of strains — to have that all in one more akin to what we see with the flu vaccine. You know, there’s a lot that technology is working on in science and research will probably have something, you know, down the road that we’re not even thinking about today.

Degman: So basically, we’re still in the thick of changing and evolving science?

Ezike: That’s how science works. It’s constantly evolving. You know, the sausage is being made right in front of us. I think it’s not comfortable for everyone to see how this evolves. We’re used to diseases that, “Oh, they’ve been around for hundreds of years. We know how this works.” We are part of that history that, you know, 100 years from now, people [will be] like “Oh, yeah, I understand about COVID,” but they will know about it because of what we have gone through during this time.

Alex Degman covers Illinois state government for Illinois Public Radio.
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