SPRINGFIELD — Republicans on the Illinois House Veterans’ Affairs Committee called for a hearing this week to investigate a COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home where at least nine residents have died after testing positive for the virus.
In a letter to the House’s committee chairwoman Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego, the Republican House committee members asked to hold hearings to “quickly investigate how and why this most recent outbreak occurred and what steps are being taken by the Pritzker administration to stop the spread of COVID-19 at all state-run veterans’ homes and health care facilities.”
More than 150 positive COVID-19 cases have been reported at the LaSalle Veterans Home, including 82 residents as of Thursday, Nov. 12, said Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike. The LaSalle facility can provide care for up to 184 veterans, according to the state’s website, and the facility currently has 121 residents and 230 active employees.
“The increase we have seen at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home is frightening and leaves us with many unanswered questions about the failures in protocol that has caused such a widespread outbreak,” the letter reads.
Kifowit said she spoke to an Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs official on Wednesday about the recent outbreak and steps being taken to address it.
“I really think that it’s simply unacceptable,” Kifowit said in a phone interview. “I did have an extensive conversation with IDVA about the contact tracing and and evaluating what happened, increasing cleaning and about avenues to improve air quality. So, it was a good conversation.”
Kitfowit said she is in talks with Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, about holding a virtual subject matter hearing on the outbreak in LaSalle. While the Senate has procedures in place for holding hearings virtually, the House does not.
The Illinois Veterans Home at Quincy has reported more than 80 cases and one death since the beginning of the pandemic, and the Manteno Veterans Home has reported more than 100 cases and more than 15 deaths since the pandemic began, Ezike said at the governor’s daily news conference Thursday. According to IDVA, no residents are currently known to be COVID-19-positive at the Quincy home, 14 employees are currently positive. Manteno has one resident and 12 employees who are currently positive for COVID-19.
The Prince Home, which is separate from Manteno but on the same campus, has reported seven positive COVID-19 cases, while the Anna Veterans Home has reported 13 positive COVID-19 cases, which includes six residents, Ezike said. There are no active cases at the Prince Home, according to IDVA, while one employee at the Anna home is currently positive.
Ezike said decreasing the spread of the virus in local communities surrounding veterans’ homes will ultimately help lower the rate of infection inside veterans’ homes.
“Please understand that it’s impossible to have a COVID-free veteran’s home, (or) COVID-free school in the midst of a COVID storm. And that’s what we have in our community right now,” Ezike said. “We can help protect our veterans by reducing the amount of virus that’s circulating in the communities. Health care staff, who work at the homes, they’re in the community with you. They’re buying groceries, they’re running other essential errands, and if disease transmission is just rampant, then those individuals that work in the homes can get the virus and unfortunately spread it to our heroes.”
She said an IDPH team is on site at the LaSalle home to “provide technical assistance and consultation.”
In a Nov. 11 letter to residents and staff of the LaSalle home, IDVA Administrator Angela Mehlbrech wrote that the facility has been following recommendations from state and local health officials.
“This includes continuing our health screenings of staff and residents, maintaining social distancing practices, wearing face coverings, using gloves and gowns when indicated, and intensified cleaning and disinfection protocols,” Mehlbrech wrote.
According to IDVA, the residents who tested positive are being isolated in the LaSalle facility, which has suspended all visitations since the outbreak began.
During a Zoom news conference on Nov. 12, Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, said the outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home is another reason why the House and Senate should hold additional hearings into the state’s response to COVID-19.
“We can have a back and forth dialogue about what happened from this outbreak, what protocols were in place, and what protocols, if any, were broken, what’s being done, and what can we learn from it, so we can protect everyone in our veterans’ homes and nursing homes,” Rezin said during a news conference with Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, requesting that legislative leaders convene hearings on the state’s COVID-19 response with members of the General Assembly.
“I know everybody’s working right now around the clock to do a deep dive on what happened…But clearly there was a breach at the veterans’ home. And we need to know why. And it would be much easier for us to be able to do a deep dive with a public hearing,” she said.