Illinois National Guard medical staff have been sent to the LaSalle Veterans’ Homes to assist with COVID-19 testing and screening at the facility, and next week will arrive at the state-run veterans' homes in Manteno and Quincy.
It’s not a deployment and those going into the facilities are National Guard medical staff and not reserve members.
Gov. JB Pritzker announced the move several hours after NPR Illinois first reported it on Thursday.
"This just one example of how we are directing every available resource to our veterans’ community through the period of exceptional risk here in Illinois," Pritzker said. "We will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to safeguard our most vulnerable, especially those who lived to serve."
In a statement Thursday, La Salle County Veterans Assistance Commission Superintendent Steven Kreitzer said the staff are "medical units that will be utilized to maintain records of temperature checks and COVID-19 testing as well as make sure PPE is being worn at all times properly."
"This additional help will allow the nurses to once again focus on taking care of our veteran residents in the home rather than doing or worrying about the items listed above," Kreitzer said.
The extra help comes after a massive deadly outbreak of the virus is mostly under control at the LaSalle facility, and a smaller outbreak at the Quincy home is ongoing. A 33rd resident at LaSalle died this week after testing positive for COVID-19, meaning more than a quarter of the residents in the home since the outbreak was first reported on Nov. 1 have died. There have been two COVID deaths at Quincy.
No new residents at the LaSalle home have tested positive for the virus for more than a week, but 38 residents of the facility’s current 93 are still actively fighting the virus, with five in the hospital, according to Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs spokeswoman Bridget Dooley. Three staff members are currently positive of the 99 who have tested positive since the outbreak began.
At the Quincy home, 32 residents are currently positive with the virus — with three of them hospitalized — of the facility’s current census count of 293 residents. Twenty-two staff members are currently positive.
The LaSalle home’s administrator was fired on Monday, and the director of nursing at the facility was also placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into the outbreak. The personnel moves came weeks after site visits from the Illinois Department of Public Health and U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs found shortcomings in safety protocols.
But Pritzker this week defended the timing of his decision.
“We wanted to make changes as quickly as possible to put the best people in the right places because all we want is to keep these heroes safe,” Pritzker said.
When NPR Illinois asked Pritzker at his daily COVID-19 news conference Tuesday about plans to send in the National Guard to the LaSalle facility, the governor sidestepped the question.
“I don’t know where you get your rumors from,” Pritzker said.
But on Thursday, Pritzker said he hadn't yet been "made aware" of the effort to move National Guard staff to veterans' homes, and said it was reflective of his administration following his directive "to move quickly" in responding to the outbreak.
"That’s a good thing," Pritzker said. "I want my administration to be nimble and responsive, but I want to apologize for being dismissive when I was asked about it."
State Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris), who represents the facility in her district, questioned why it took weeks for Pritzker’s administration to send in the national guard when she suggested it weeks ago.
"It's hard to understand how it took 33 residents losing their lives to COVID-19 for the Governor to finally bring in the National Guard to provide support at the LaSalle Veterans' Home," Rezin wrote in a Facebook post. "This is something I suggested almost 3 weeks ago. Yet another delay in the response to this crisis."
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.