ILLINOIS — USA Today has released its inaugural class for their Women of the Year project, recognizing women both nationally and in every state and territory. For Illinois, that recognition goes to Dr. Ngozi Ezike.

Dr. Ezike is best known for her time spent as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, a role she first stepped into in 2019 and recently left on March 14, 2022. While an important role within state government, it is not one traditionally performed in front of television cameras on a near daily basis. For Ezike, that is precisely what it became when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Tasked with the unenviable responsibility to report daily coronavirus statistics such as infections and deaths, Ezike provided a steady stream of information during a public health crisis the level of which had not been seen since the 1918 influenza pandemic. She’s quoted in the Journal Star saying, “We were flying the plane as we were building it. I think the public saw firsthand how science evolved.”

Ezike was the first African American woman to lead the department in its 145-year history. Prior to that she worked for Cook County Health for more than 15 years. Ezike is a board-certified internist and pediatrician, recognized nationally as an expert on health care in the juvenile justice system, speaks four languages fluently (English, Spanish, French and Igbo), and is a mother of four.

Ezike, along with her Women of the Year peers, was chosen through a process that started with nominations and ended with a selection panel. USA Today’s project began last year when they introduced their very first honoree, Vice President Kamala Harris. The project itself followed the organization’s 2020 Women of the Century project which celebrated the achievements of individual women over the 100 years since women won the right to vote.