Ill. House Panel Opens Rare Investigation Into Deadly COVID-19 Outbreak At Veterans’ Home

Dec 4, 2020

Credit Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs

An Illinois House committee will take the extraordinary step of launching an investigation into a COVID-19 outbreak at the state-run LaSalle Veterans’ Home, which has killed 31 residents in the last few weeks." class="wysiwyg-break drupal-content" src="/sites/all/modules/contrib/wysiwyg/plugins/break/images/spacer.gif" title="<--break-->">State Rep. André Thapedi (D-Chicago) this week initiated an investigation into the outbreak in his capacity as Chair of the House Judiciary - Civil Committee. The investigation is separate from one announced by Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration last week, which will be completed in the coming months by the Illinois Department of Human Services’ inspector general.

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

The LaSalle Veterans’ Home announced a 31st resident death on Thursday, meaning the outbreak has killed one quarter of the 121 residents at the facility. Few new cases have been reported in the last week, however, and officials say the outbreak that sickened nearly 90% of the home’s residents is under control.

As of Thursday, Mehlbrech reported a total of 108 residents who tested positive for the virus since the outbreak began and 97 employees. 81 of those staff members have recovered from the virus, according to Mehlbrech, and 37 residents have recovered, leaving 43 residents still fighting COVID-19.

Credit Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois

Thapedi said he was withholding judgment on Pritzker’s actions or the performance of Illinois Department of Affairs Director Linda Chapa LaVia, with whom he served in the Illinois House for a decade.

But Thapedi said using the power of the committee to investigate the handling of the outbreak and its root causes is his obligation as committee chair.

“It’s definitely a legal matter, a civil legal matter, and definitely within the province of the Judiciary - Civil committee,” Thapedi said. “I have a duty and responsibility to the people of the state to make sure that all civil-related matters are addressed by our committee at a bare minimum.”

LaSalle Veterans’ Home Administrator Angela Mehlbrech 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.

In his letter to House officials, Pritzker and Attorney General Kwame Raoul advising of the investigation, Thapedi called the massive outbreak and resulting deaths “deplorable” and said preliminary reports released by the Pritzker’s administration “show a pattern of conduct indicative of wanton disregard” for the health and safety of the LaSalle home’s residents.

In a separate letter written to Mehlbrech, Thapedi requested a bevy of information, documents and records related to the outbreak and to general protocols in the facility by Dec. 9. Thapedi said he also planned to make similar requests for the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Illinois Department of Public Health. 

If the information received from the facility and the state agencies warrants an investigative hearing, Thapedi said it could be held when the legislature returns for its expected “Lame Duck” session in January, as lawmakers’ planned fall Veto Session was canceled last month due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations statewide.

Preliminary reports released by the Pritzker administration last week found obvious issues in the facility, including the use of non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers — which does not kill COVID-19 — in wall-mounted dispensers. 

The reports, which stemmed from on-site visits from IDPH and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last month, also cited examples of staff violating personal protective equipment protocols, including wearing masks below their chins including while not social distancing in the facility’s kitchen area.

The U.S. VA’s official report also noted staff who eventually tested positive had attended the same Halloween party. Chapa LaVia, however, said that finding was “word of mouth.”

“We don’t have evidence to substantiate that,” Chapa LaVia said during a Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee hearing last week. 

During that hearing, officials said five staff members who tested positive for COVID-19 volunteered to return to work despite their diagnosis. Centers for Disease Control guidelines do allow for healthcare personnel to return to work after testing positive for the virus to avoid staffing shortages, so long as they are fully donned with PPE and return to care for only patients who are already infected with the virus.

Chapa LaVia said no staff members were forced to return to work after testing positive, but acknowledged keeping adequate staffing during the outbreak has been a challenge, saying an existing contract to bring additional staff into the facility was rendered useless when the call for assistance was not returned.

“We do have a contract on hand to get more employees in, and when we called them, they did not respond back to us,” Chapa LaVia said. 

In mid-November after the site visit from the U.S. VA, officials deployed an Abbott Binax-Now rapid testing machine to the facility in order to conduct pre-shift screening. PCR testing for staff and residents has increased from once weekly to twice.

When asked last week whether he’d make personnel challenges at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Pritzker would only say that he’s awaiting the results of the inspector general’s investigation to determine if there “was wrongdoing by anyone.”

Pritzker this week said Chapa LaVia had already overseen changes suggested by the preliminary reports from IDPH and the U.S. VA, and would rely on the in-depth investigation for next steps. 

“Let’s figure out what went wrong so we can not only hold people accountable — which I know is what everybody is talking about — but also because we want to make changes if there are changes that need to be made at our long-term care facilities across the state or specifically at our veterans’ homes,” Pritzker said.

Illinois’ other veterans homes have not been immune to COVID-19, but outbreaks at those facilities have not been as large as the LaSalle Outbreak. 

When the first employee at Manteno’s Prince Veterans’ Home tested positive for COVID-19 in early April, Chapa LaVia said all of IDVA’s “facilities are prepared for COVID-19.”

“If cases do occur, we will work with the guidance from the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, our local health officials, to isolate, hospitalize residents as appropriate and protect other residents and our staff from transmittal,” Chapa LaVia said on April 4

Testifying in front of the Senate committee last week, Chapa LaVia said even in pre-COVID times, veterans homes often see residents dying from other causes.

“It’s devastating,” Chapa LaVia said of those deaths. “But it’s more devastating when we can’t control what’s going on in the sense that we don’t have medications, we don’t have ventilators. We are a long-term care facility...We were never set up to be a hospital, but we have done everything in our power.”

The Manteno facility saw an outbreak in May and June that left 15 residents dead, according to the home’s administrator, and another outbreak in August that killed two residents

The administrator for the veterans’ home in Quincy this week said the facility was currently experiencing 27 active COVID-19 cases “in-house.”

As a gubernatorial candidate, Pritzker made former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s handling of outbreaks of Legionnaires’ Disease at the Quincy facility a central theme of his campaign. The outbreaks killed 14 residents and sickened dozens more residents and staff. Earlier this year, the state agreed to pay a $6.4 million settlement to the families of the deceased.

Republicans earlier this week juxtaposed Pritzker’s highlighting of the Quincy Legionnaires’ outbreak in his campaign against Rauner to his handling of the LaSalle COVID-19 outbreak. 

State Rep. David Welter (R-Morris) accused Pritzker’s administration of being “virtually silent” on the outbreak. In the same virtual news conference, State Rep. Randy Frese (R-Paloma) said learning about each veteran who died after contracting COVID-19 was like “being kicked in the stomach.”

For his part, Thapedi agreed, saying he felt a “deep, deep sadness,” and said he was urged by his Chicago-based constituents — who live nearly 100 miles east of the LaSalle Veterans’ Home — to take action. 

“I do understand that we are dealing with a novel virus. I get that,” Thapedi said. “The fact that this particular virus is extremely virulent — I get that as well. But how this virus can penetrate into a facility that is housing the heroes of our country is beyond me. And that’s what the House Judiciary - Civil committee is going to find out.”