Gov. J.B. Pritzker celebrated progress in the COVID-19 pandemic — including the end of Illinois’ mask mandate — but also called for caution and compassion during a news conference at Rush University Medical Center on Tuesday.
“We are now on day two of the mask requirement being lifted across the state of Illinois,” Pritzker said. “Today we reap the benefits of our commitment to each other, and it is so good to see those smiling faces again.”
Illinois’s mandatory mask requirement ended on Monday thanks to a sustained drop in COVID cases, hospitalizations and other metrics. The news was met with excitement and optimism, but officials still urged caution. (Masks are still required in Illinois hospitals.)
“I don’t know what’s next for us in this pandemic,” Pritzker said. “We have seen indicators of positive progress, but there is no metric to predict the future. I want to ask everyone to treat each other with kindness and with compassion. What’s right for someone else may not be what you would choose. But remember that we should all default to what will keep each other safe and healthy."
Dr. Omar Lateef, president and CEO of Rush University Medical Center, shared similar sentiments in his opening remarks.
“We do not enter this new phase of COVID-19 lightly,” Lateef said. “As we have said all along, it’s essential that we all follow the science. The science now tells us that we can ease our use of masks where appropriate.”
Dropping of the indoor mask mandate suggests brighter days ahead, but there are still struggles to address. Hospitals and health care are not out of the woods as the omicron surge, coupled with workforce issues, have placed a strain on hospitals, RUSH included.
“The pandemic has been relentless for all,” Lateef said. “For those of us in health care, the impact has been more severe. We have all learned important lessons from this last surge as we battled omicron. Previous surges were extraordinarily challenging because so little was known about the virus. This time our biggest challenge was different — staffing.”
Pritzker also took a moment to address, and thank, the many health care workers and facilities in Illinois for their commitment to their patients throughout every stage of this pandemic.
“These people are warriors,” he said. “They give and they give when so many needed them. They have stretched themselves into superhumans and in doing so offered the greatest recent examples of humanity and caring. I am deeply grateful. I always will be.”
'Pandemic is not over'
Throughout the pandemic, RUSH has been at the forefront of community outreach and patient care. RUSH was one of the early champions of COVID-19 safety measures and excelled at embracing the challenges of the pandemic.
“The pandemic is not over, and we must continue to be mindful that there are still many who are vulnerable,” Lateef said. “We are deeply proud that RUSH is where this milestone is marked, but I can say with certainty that these acts of heroism have taken place at every hospital in Chicago and our country. Today we extend deep and sincere thanks to all — here at RUSH and health care workers across Chicago and Illinois — for their extraordinary commitment.”
Pritzker also announced that Dr. Ngozi Ezike would be stepping down from her role as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, effective March 14.
"This incredible opportunity has been the pinnacle of my career,” said Ezike, who is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Rush Medical College.