The "overwhelming" emotional toll of the coronavirus left an Illinois doctor in tears as she announced the latest number of deaths in the state more than seven months into the pandemic.
"These are people who started with us in 2020 and won't be with us at the Thanksgiving table," Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said before turning her back to wipe away tears during a daily press briefing with Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday.
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"Excuse me, please," she said. After about a 40-second pause, Ezike dabbed tears as she continued to deliver her message.
"I'm sorry," she said. "My message for you is to stay strong. This is a difficult race when you can't actually see the end point, and I'm sorry that that's the message I have for you."
Ezike pleaded with people to "fight the fatigue" and "fight the urge to give up on social distancing" so that schools can return to full in-person learning and healthy work environments can allow businesses to return to normal.
Pritzker praised Azike's efforts during his talk after her tearful moment.
"Dr. Azike is Superwoman," Pritzer said at the briefing. "Since the very beginning of this coronavirus she has had the weight of public health and the people of the state of Illinois on her shoulders.
Her pleas come as multiple states set records for the number of new coronavirus cases, while two back-to-back daily records for single-day increases in U.S. cases were set on Friday, with 79,303 new cases, and on Thursday with 77,640, according to NBC News.
Ezike outlined the latest 3,874 confirmed cases in Illinois, where the positivity rate shot up from 3.3% a few weeks ago to 5.6% through the end of last week. There have been 9,418 deaths in Illinois since the start of the pandemic, and almost 2,500 hospital beds are currently occupied by COVID patients, Ezike said.
"These are mothers and fathers and grandparents, our coworkers," she told NBC Nightly News on Sunday. "It's overwhelming."
Ezike has received an outpouring of support after her emotional moment at Friday's briefing.
"It has to just be a culmination of all the anxiety and the despair and the sadness," she said. "From the hundreds and hundreds of emails I've gotten in the last 24 hours it sounds like everybody needed to have that release together."
During the briefing, she urged people to please wear masks and avoid large gatherings if possible.
"Let's please work together," she said. "I know many of you are healthy and don't have a concern in the world of dying from this COVID. Let's please think beyond ourselves and think about the people that we could unknowingly infect who may not be as fortunate to have the immune system and the healthy status that you may have."