Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration on Monday fired the administrator of the LaSalle Veterans’ Home, where 32 residents have been reported dead in the last month after a widespread COVID-19 outbreak at the facility in November.
The director of nursing at the veterans’ home was also placed on administrative leave, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs confirmed Monday.
During his daily COVID-19 news briefing, Pritzker once again acknowledged the severity of the outbreak, saying it “should never have been this bad.”
“The worst-case scenario that I’ve tried every day to prevent is now our reality in LaSalle,” Pritzker said. “To all those who have lost someone they love, I grieve with you for the time that was stolen from you. I grieve with you that the refrain of vaccines as a light at the end of the tunnel rings hollow to you because a light has already left your life.”
Ousted administrator Angela Mehlbrech announced a 32nd resident death over the weekend — the tail end of a viral outbreak she first reported on Nov. 1. Mehlbrech announced the first deaths in the home ten days later, on Veterans’ Day.
There have been no new COVID-19 cases reported among residents or staff since Dec. 1, but Pritzker on Monday said 39 residents are actively infected with the virus. IDVA spokeswoman Bridget Dooley told NPR Illinois that 38 residents have recovered from the virus. Of the 102 employees at the facility who tested positive for COVID-19 since the outbreak began, 81 have recovered and 21 are still positive, Dooley said.
IDVA Acting Assistant Director Anthony Vaughn began as interim administrator at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home on Monday. In a statement, Vaughn said he mourned “the tragedy of the heroes lost to COVID-19” during the outbreak.
“We will ensure that CDC and IDPH protocols are followed and full accountability occurs for any lapses in protocols,” Vaughn said in a statement. “All measures will be taken to ensure the health and well-being of the residents we serve and we will continue to support their families and loved ones during this heartbreaking period.”
As a 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 in recent weeks have contrasted Pritzker’s highlighting of the Quincy Legionnaires’ outbreak in his campaign against Rauner to his handling of the LaSalle COVID-19 outbreak.
State Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris), who represents the veterans' home in her senate district, said removing Mehlbrech was a "step toward bringing accountability to the deadliest outbreak at a state-run facility in Illinois state history."
But Rezin said the firing also raised more questions.
"What does the Governor’s office know about their conduct that we don’t?" Rezin said in a statement Monday. "The Governor needs to be transparent about what information led to this decision."
Preliminary reports released by the Pritzker administration last month 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. During a hearing before Thanksgiving, IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia, however, said that finding was an unsubstantiated claim spread through “word of mouth.”
Ahead of the virtual state Senate committee hearing on the outbreak before Thanksgiving, Pritzker announced a full investigation into the matter, which will be completed in the coming months by the Illinois Department of Human Services’ inspector general.
In the interim, House Judiciary - Civil Committee Chair State Rep. André Thapedi (D-Chicago) last week opened a rare investigation into the outbreak. The chair of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit (D-Oswego) on Friday wrote to House Speaker Mike Madigan's chief of staff requesting an in-person hearing, as the House has not authorized virtual meetings during the pandemic.