BRADLEY — Freedom can come in many different forms, and when it comes to freedom from the COVID-19 virus and its lingering pandemic, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the state’s top public health official, has a simple message.

“One hundred and twenty people get admitted to the hospital every single day in this state with COVID,” said Ezike, who was the keynote speaker at the Kankakee County Branch of the NAACP’s 56th annual Freedom Fund Banquet on Saturday in Bradley.

“And we know that that number would shrink to such low numbers, probably to single digit numbers, maybe in the teens, if we could just get these additional people vaccinated,” said Ezike, who is the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

No other person in Illinois has been more at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic than Ezike.

As an internist and pediatrician, Ezike worked in a variety of health care settings before being appointed as the first Black woman to serve as IDPH’s director.

Her frequently televised COVID-19 briefings with Gov. JB Pritzker have made Ezike a household name in Illinois since early 2020.

“I know that we have politicians in this room that are working together to form healthy relationships and do the right things to end the pandemic,“ she said.

Ezike linked the NAACP’s mission of increasing equality and eliminating racism and discrimination to IDPH’s attempts to combat health disparities and give all Illinoisans access to public health services, especially the immediate COVID-19-related ones.

“I’ll admit that everyone in every county has not seen eye-to-eye on the best way to approach this pandemic, but we do share a common goal in this fight and that is to do our best to keep our families and our communities healthy and thriving,” she said.

She spoke about IDPH’s town halls and community vaccine forums, the department’s mobile “Wellness on Wheels” unit and the equity task force that contributes to each weekly meeting she has with the governor.

Misinformation is not something that can just be ignored, she said, “because while you’re blowing that off, people are dying.”

There have been about 170 COVID deaths and 1,300 people admitted in the hospital across the state in the past week, Ezike said.

In response to how Kankakee County can improve its vaccination rates, Ezike told the Daily Journal that more direct outreach and education is needed.

“We gotta keep pushing it and making it available, and remind people of the ability to vaccinate their kids as well,” she said.

At the Kankakee County Branch of the NAACP’s annual Freedom Fund Banquet, local and state leaders stressed community collaboration as fundamental to overcoming discrimination, inequality, the coronavirus and other adversity.

The event at the Quality Inn & Suites in Bradley followed the theme “Fighting Forward Toward Justice, Equality and Change.”

Kankakee County Branch NAACP President Theodis Pace welcomed community members and officials by reflecting on the night’s theme.

“We hope that you will leave tonight understanding that if we work together as one, we can help this nation move down that path of hope, progress, and away from the division and bitter criticism that so many seem to embrace,” he said.

Tocarra Eldridge-Robinson and Aaron Robinson of Still I Rise, a local non-profit founded in 2014, received the branch’s President’s Award from Pace for their work providing food and other services to those in need throughout the region. He noted their impact is extensive, citing the 500 individuals they served in just the past week.

“When you look at everyone in here and go table by table, you can see someone who’s impacted Kankakee County,” State Senator Patrick Joyce, D-Essex, said in his introduction of the keynote speaker.

Ezike offered examples of disparities in maternal mortality between Black and white mothers, access to quality grocery stores and public transportation to demonstrate how social determinants impact the health of communities like Kankakee County outside of COVID-19 and need to be addressed to provide more equitable health care access.

“Most of the things that will determine your health care will have nothing to do with that interaction with me inside the office,” she said.

The Journal asked Ezike about government distrust and people who find IDPH’s reported COVID metrics inaccurate.

“The state health agency has been collecting data since its inception 100 and almost 50 years ago,” Ezike said. “We have no political aim, we have no political goal, our mission has always been to protect the health and safety of Illinois. And so we are collecting all of the data and trying to push it out as quickly as possible, and we are always working to do things that will help people achieve our optimal health.”

“I know that people have tried to cast public health officials as the villain, but we are actually the number one support and we’ve always been and we will continue to be even after this pandemic is over.”

Ezike thanked Kankakee County health administrator John Bevis in her speech for “not cutting and running” despite the constant flow of criticism facing public health officials during the pandemic

The NAACP is a civil rights organization formed in 1909. It has 42 chapters throughout Illinois and the Kankakee branch has over 500 members, according to Pace. The Kankakee County NAACP meets at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month, currently virtually.

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Meredith Melland earned a BA in journalism from DePaul University, where she worked as a web developer and editor for 14 East, DePaul's online student magazine. She has interned for Chicago magazine and WGN. Her email is mmelland@daily-journal.com.