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EYE ON ILLINOIS: Vets’ home outbreak points to agency’s fundamental flaws

Northwest Herald

Friday, November 20, 2020  |  Commentary  |  By Scott T. Holland

Health (49) , Veterans (95)

It’s been eight rough days since my Veterans Day column looked at some of the state’s successes and failures in attempting to care for such a vital population.

At the time, I made a passing reference to a coronavirus outbreak at the La Salle Veterans Home, where by my deadline 48 residents and 12 employees had positive tests. The new numbers, current as of Nov. 16, are that COVID-19 has stricken 95 residents and 90 employees. Already 17 resident deaths are attributed at least in part to the pandemic.

Home employees spoke with Shaw Media reporters, who agreed not to use their names in print after the workers said they would face retaliation for going public with their concerns about the facility. Among their complaints: there is no regular sanitizing procedure for the time clock, and administrators stopped enforcing a 14-day quarantine for residents who went off campus.

But a different employee stood by the facility’s protective policies and instead blamed the spike in positive tests on a switch in labs, from one in Springfield to one in Chicago.

“There’s no way it spread to 144 people that fast,” he said. “That’s why I believe something went wrong at the Springfield lab, who also happened to have a COVID outbreak themselves and were probably running short-handed like us and made a mistake.”

In a rather grim tally, the 17 COVID fatalities in La Salle already surpassed the 13 veterans whose deaths were attributed to a 2015 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the Quincy Veterans Home. That episode cost the state millions of dollars in mitigation efforts and legal exposure. It also led to what seemed to be a useful report from Auditor General Frank Mautino in March 2019, but any lessons learned from the Quincy experience weren’t enough to head off disaster in La Salle.

Clearly COVID and Legionnaires are different from an epidemiological standpoint, but some of the problems in 2015 centered on how quickly public health officials acted, whether staff were given sufficient instructions for protecting residents and how effectively the state agencies communicated the severity of the situation with the public.

Seeing some of those same problems recur in La Salle — despite new leadership in several key posts, all the way up to the governor’s office — makes it fair to question how the state can pass itself off as properly equipped to rise to this challenge.

Some lawmakers already are calling for a public hearing on this specific outbreak. While that certainly is important, it’s clear we need to investigate the entire Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs to identify and hopefully repair what must be fundamental flaws.

Failing to act would be a complete dereliction of duty.