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Op-ed: Pritzker’s delayed response to LaSalle Veterans’ Home COVID outbreak was fatal

Chicago Tribune

Saturday, January 9, 2021  |  Commentary  |  By State Sen. Sue Rezin

Governor (44) , Health (49) , Veterans (95) Rezin, Sue--State Senate, 38

Three years ago, Gov. J.B. Pritzker stated, “When a governor does not take charge, people die.” Those words were true then, and remain true, as 36 veterans have paid a deadly price for his administration’s lack of a quick, decisive response to the COVID-19 outbreak at the state-run LaSalle Veterans’ Home.

In early November, an outbreak began at the home, which has caused infection in 90% of the residents. As the virus ravaged the home, Gov. Pritzker chose to blame the local community for spreading it into the facility. Yet, the findings from a recently-released report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs tells a disturbingly different story.

We now know the state went against CDC guidelines and supplied the LaSalle Veterans’ Home with an alcohol-free hand sanitizer, which does not prevent the spread of COVID. The USVA’s infection control site report stated the lack of proper hand sanitizer could have had a “significant impact on the transmission of COVID-19 within the facility.” The home lacked PPE appropriate for a clinical setting — requiring the USVA to provide an emergency supply of N95 masks. Infection control protocols and practices were lax and led to uncontrolled spread within the home.

The first day of the outbreak resulted in four cases. By day three, cases reached 29. After a week, cases skyrocketed 2,475 percent. However, the Illinois Department of Public Health ) still would not appear on-site for another five days. If it had, it would have found significant lapses in protocols and a lack of effective supplies to safeguard against COVID spread. By then, the virus had already infected nearly 7 of every 10 residents, resulting in 13 deaths.

On Nov. 13, state and federal public health officials finally arrived on-site to conduct an investigation. It would be another two weeks — a month after the start of the outbreak — before the Pritzker administration finalized arrangements for federal on-site assistance to improve infection-control protocols at LaSalle and three other state-run veterans homes.

The result is the deadliest outbreak at a state-run facility in Illinois history.

And yet, the governor continues to dodge the question that matters most, “Why did IDPH wait for nearly two weeks to get on-site to conduct an infection control visit?” Nothing prevented IDPH from conducting a visit earlier.

Exchanging emails and phone calls was not a sufficient response by the Pritzker administration. If it were, the employees and residents of the LaSalle Veterans’ Home would not have had to wait 12 days into the outbreak to receive effective hand sanitizer and PPE.

State employees were left to combat COVID-19 on their own using insufficient, unproven protective supplies while the Pritzker administration failed to take action for two weeks. The delay in getting state health officials on-site was a fatal error in promptly finding and implementing corrective measures.

Six hours of legislative hearings have yet to uncover an answer because the Illinois Department of Public Health refuses to appear before legislative committees investigating the state’s response to the outbreak. Families are left to wonder why key administration officials are kept hidden from public hearings.

I call upon Gov. Pritzker to publicly commit to having IDPH’s director or assistant director and chief of staff attend future legislative hearings. Illinois veterans and their families deserve to know the truth behind IDPH’s deadly delay, and only the governor can make that happen by requiring his political appointees to stop avoiding the legislative oversight process and start answering questions.

Sue Rezin, from Morris, is a Republican state senator for the 38th District.