CHICAGO (CBS) — Illinois is gradually opening up, but in the age of COVID-19 the state’s top doctor is still watching the numbers.

“We have to still be cautious so that we don’t reverse some of the gains we made,” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The state got to know Ezike from her almost daily briefings during the height of the crisis. 

“We really flattened that curve, and it’s now on the descent,” she said.

Since the state moved to Phase 3 on May 29, Ezike says the positivity rate in Northeast Illinois has dropped to roughly 8%, which is a 40% decline. Also, about 39% of the region’s ICU beds are available, which is a 19% increase.

“All of the benefits we are seeing now are because of the enormous sacrifices people made to stand down and stay home and shelter in place and minimize their activity,” she said.

But the road there included weighty public health responsibilities.

“I think when the deaths started occurring I was taking them personally and feeling like, ‘Oh how is it that I couldn’t prevent these?’ and then the numbers grew and grew,” she said. “Every life lost is such a severe tragedy, but I’m trying to look forward so we can prevent additional lives from being lost,” Ezike said.

In recent weeks there have been mass gatherings at protests and marches. Ezike encourages those who attended to get a free COVID-19 test, but so far there hasn’t been a spike in cases. The data still needs to be watched carefully.

Ezike said a lot of factors are in play.

“I have to stress how much we’re still learning about this virus,” she said.

Some people are still apprehensive about going outside.

“I don’t mind people being cautious,” she said. “But we also have to try to move forward, so we have to strike that delicate balance. With the guidelines we set out we potentially could be moving to Phase 4 in two weeks. That’s where the masking comes in. That’s where the social distancing comes in.”

Ezike also communicated daily with the state’s Spanish population. In college she became fluent in five languages.

“I remember my father saying saying, ‘You’re going to be a doctor. What is all this?’ So I always think that my father is looking down from heaven and smiling saying, ‘Oh I guess this did help you in your career,'” Ezike said.

Ezike said people did such a good job of staying at home, and those at mass gatherings did such a good job of wearing masks, perhaps that has softened the impact, but she still needs to look closely at the data. She encourages everyone to get a test.

Vince Gerasole