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Safety at Illinois veterans’ homes becomes top issue in 2nd consecutive governor’s race


Wednesday, May 11, 2022  |  Article  |  Ben Szalinski

After a state audit found the Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration failed to adequately respond to a November 2020 COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home, Pritzker’s potential Republican challengers have slammed the first-term governor as the safety of the state’s veterans’ homes becomes a core issue in a second straight gubernatorial election.


After 13 residents died from Legionnaires’ disease during former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration beginning in 2015 at the Quincy home, Pritzker targeted Rauner’s handling of the issue in the 2018 campaign for governor. However, Pritzker is on the defensive this year after 36 residents at the LaSalle home died from COVID-19 and an audit found the Department of Public Health “did not identify and respond to the seriousness of the outbreak.” 


“As a veteran who proudly served my country in combat, I am sickened by the fact that JB Pritzker and his administration sat idly by instead of springing into action to save the lives of those who served our country,” Richard Irvin said Monday at the first news conference he has held since he launched his campaign in January.  


“This is the same person who blasted his predecessor time and time again for the tragedy that occurred at the Quincy Veterans’ Home… he swore he would do better as governor. He failed. He knew the outbreak system was flawed, but he did nothing to address it,” he said.  


While running for governor in 2018, Pritzker also said he was disgusted by the Rauner administration’s handling of the Quincy outbreak. 


“It is a shameful neglect of our veterans who we should be standing up for every single day,” he said in a 2018 debate.  


Since the audit on the LaSalle outbreak was released, Pritzker has blamed Republicans for allowing the virus to enter the home.  


“We were working against Republican elected officials who told people to defy mitigation efforts,” Pritzker said at a news conference Thursday. “We told people that they needed to follow those mitigations, but Republicans told them they need not wear masks. They told people that they didn’t need to get vaccinated. They told people that COVID wasn’t serious. Those lies put people’s lives at risk.” 


General Assembly Republicans and candidates for governor are calling for accountability within Pritzker’s circle and the Department of Public Health. The audit found a previous inspector general report, which Pritzker said he asked for, was “flawed” because it only focused on the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ handling of the outbreak and not the health department. 


“JB Pritzker needs to be held accountable for his failures and to take responsibility for the lives lost and the damage done,” Jesse Sullivan (R-Petersburg) said in a statement last week. “Time and time again, Pritzker has blamed others.” 


Pritzker has defended his administration’s response to the outbreak at the home and acknowledged his oversight responsibilities of executive agencies. 


“I’m the governor of the state of Illinois, so I understand the agencies are my responsibility, the appointments to lead those agencies are my responsibility,” Pritzker said.


The governor also argued he has held people responsible for the outbreak, particularly former Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Linda Chapa LaVia, who resigned from her job in January 2021 — a decision Pritzker supported. 


“I appoint people to the office,” Pritzker said. “I also take them out of office when we discover people have not done the job properly.” 


That response has not been good enough for Pritzker’s political opponents, however. 


“There needs to be accountability,” Irvin said. “JB Pritzker needs to answer to the families that lost their loved ones because of his negligence. JB Pritzker needs to accept responsibility instead of consistently pointing the finger at others.” 


Rep. David Welter (R-Morris) spoke at Irvin’s campaign news conference Monday and said Pritzker should fire Deputy Gov. Sol Flores, who handles health and human service matters, for not addressing the LaSalle outbreak faster. 


The audit found it took the health department 11 days to conduct a site visit, which Pritzker said was because Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines discouraged in-person investigations. The audit found the health department only visited after Pritzker asked them to. 


Republicans insist their rhetoric over the LaSalle outbreak is not partisan and that any governor, including Rauner, needs to be held accountable when residents at the state’s veterans’ homes die. 


“JB campaigned heavily on Bruce Rauner’s fatal mismanagement that led to the death from Legionnaires’ disease in Quincy’s veterans’ home,” Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) said at a Trump Tower news conference Thursday. “I’ll agree that Rauner’s administration failed those veterans because when you’re governor, the buck stops with you.”