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Senate Committee To Ask About 27 Dead Residents After COVID-19 Outbreak At LaSalle Veterans' Home

Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs
Credit Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs

Twenty-seven residents of the LaSalle Veterans’ Home have died in the last few weeks since the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs reported a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility in early November.

As of Monday, 104 residents at the home had tested positive, in addition to 94 employees, according to a letter from LaSalle Veterans’ Home Administrator Angela Melbrech.

The facility houses 121 residents and 230 employees. Since the outbreak began, 86% of residents have been reported as testing positive for the virus, and 41% of employees. Twenty-two percent have died after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

Melbrech reported the initial four cases of COVID-19 at the facility in a letter on Nov. 1: two residents and two staff members. She reported the first seven COVID-19 deaths at the facility were reported ten days later, on Nov. 11 — Veterans’ Day.

Credit Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois

State Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris), whose 38th Senate District contains the facility, said her office has received many calls about the outbreak in the past few weeks, including tips from employees and families of residents who alleged that proper safety protocols were not followed.

“We have to do what’s right for veterans,” Rezin said. “I’m trying to get the answers that I need so that I am comfortable that outbreak is under control. To date, I have not seen anything that gives me comfort in knowing that the appropriate steps have been taken to make sure that this never happens again in [the LaSalle Veterans’ Home] or in any veterans’ home across the state.”

In the wake of the outbreak, the Illinois Senate Veterans Affairs Committee called a virtual hearing for Tuesday afternoon. A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs told NPR Illinois on Monday that IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia will testify, but could not confirm whether Melbrach would attend.

Asked about the outbreak on Monday, Gov. JB Pritzker said it’s impossible to keep COVID-19 out of congregate care facilities like veterans’ homes, and pointed out the failure of even the wealthy cruise ship industry to keep the virus off of their ships when restarting cruises this year, despite efforts to test patrons before boarding.

“The fact is that even though we are testing very regularly…when there is massive, widespread community spread, there’s no way to keep it out of every facility,” Pritzker said of COVID-19 in places like veterans homes and other long-term care facilities. “There just isn’t.”

But Rezin said the governor’s contention that the LaSalle outbreak is a mere reflection of community spread of COVID-19 rings false, given the magnitude of the outbreak, pointing out that other outbreaks — even those in other veterans’ homes like the outbreak in Manteno in May — were not as large. From early May to mid-June, 15 residents in the Manteno Veterans’ Home died after testing positive for COVID-19. During that time period, 48 residents tested positive for the virus, along with 33 staff members.

In a letter addressed to Chapa LaVia last week, Rezin wrote demanding answers to more than a dozen questions about the outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home, and included what she characterized as “extremely disturbing allegations” her office had fielded about safety protocols being ignored at the facility.

“These individuals have alleged that proper safety protocols were in fact not followed by the Home’s administration and employees, including the shocking

claim that employees who tested positive for the virus were requested to return to work before the CDC’s recommended 14-day quarantine ended, as long as they were not symptomatic,” Rezin wrote.

On Monday, Rezin told NPR Illinois she had not heard back from Chapa LaVia or Pritzker’s office in the week since she’d sent her letter.

IDVA’s spokeswoman declined to address any specific questions about the safety protocols Rezin alleged had been broken, said she expected many of Rezin’s questions would be answered in Tuesday’s hearing.

The U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Illinois Department of Public Health made a site visit to the LaSalle Veterans’ Home earlier this month, and IDVA’s spokeswoman said the report detailing findings from that site visit would be made available on Tuesday for the Senate committee.

But Rezin alleged she’d been stonewalled from the committee hearing.

Though she’s not a regular member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, members are allowed to sub in on hearings, especially ones pertinent to their district. Rezin alleged State Sen. Tom Cullerton (D-Villa Park), the committee’s chair, was not allowing her to sit in as a temporary member of the committee for Tuesday’s hearing. Messages to Cullerton asking for comment went unanswered on Monday.

Rezin said she’d settle for watching the hearing online and attempt to get her questions asked by the committee’s ranking Republican, State Sen. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo).

“This should not be a partisan issue,” Rezin said. “We’ve always said that veterans’ affairs is an issue that should be nonpartisan.”

In a joint statement announcing the hearing last week, Cullerton and Schimpf said the committee wanted to better understand the outbreak and the safety protocols the facility was using. 

“We hope to work together to ensure our veterans receive the best care possible," Cullerton said.

Earlier this month, 1,300 Indiana National Guardsmen were deployed to help with mass COVID-19 testing at nursing homes statewide. Rezin said she was close to calling for similar action to get the LaSalle outbreak under control.Rezin said she’d like to see the same urgency from Democrats who control the legislature regarding the LaSalle Veterans’ Home COVID-19 outbreak as they displayed in an investigation into a Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak and 13 resulting residents’ deaths in 2015 under former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

This situation should be handled exactly the way the Legionnaires’ outbreak in Quincy was handled.

“It’s no different, other than back then there was a Republican governor in charge and now there’s a Democrat governor in charge,” Rezin said.

Copyright 2020 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Meisel works for Capitol News Illinois.