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Audit bashes IDPH, Pritzker administration response to deadly 2020 LaSalle home COVID outbreak

Gov. JB Pritzker answers questions about the 2020 deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle...
Gov. JB Pritzker answers questions about the 2020 deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans' Home.(Mike Miletich)
Published: May. 5, 2022 at 5:00 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - Gov. JB Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health are facing backlash after a new audit found major problems in the state’s response to the deadly 2020 COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home. Auditor General Frank Mautino’s office said the Illinois Department of Public Health did not identify and respond to the seriousness of the outbreak that killed 36 of the nation’s heroes in the state’s care.

The 154-page report shows the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs Chief of Staff requested assistance from IDPH but officials didn’t show up on-site for 11 days. IDVA Chief of Staff Tony Kolbeck reported the first four positive COVID-19 cases and the initial possibility of an outbreak to IDPH and the Pritzker administration on November 1, 2020. Kolbeck sent an email twelve days later reporting 83 residents and 93 staff had positive cases while 11 residents had died. He also noted that three residents and one employee were hospitalized.

This report shows Kolbeck asked for IDPH officials to visit the site and provide rapid tests on November 9 before asking for antibody treatment for veterans on November 11. Documents released to the Auditor General show IDPH didn’t offer advice or help to slow the spread of COVID-19 at the home. This audit noted that 32 of the veterans who died had tested positive before IDPH visited the home on November 12, 2020.

Although, Gov. JB Pritzker stressed that IDPH was the central responsible agency for the entire pandemic.

“While this veterans’ home was having its outbreak, they were occurring all over the state in schools, in other nursing homes, in other congregate care settings,” Pritzker said. “And at the same time, they were following the guidance from the CDC in every which way.”

Pritzker claimed that CDC guidance encouraged public health officials to not send someone inside a congregate setting that could spread COVID-19 while a phone call would be easier and safer. He also pointed to Republican lawmakers not encouraging people in LaSalle County to wear masks and mismanagement of the veterans’ home as the main causes of the outbreak.

Mautino’s staff also documented that the outbreak occurred during a COVID-19 surge in the region where the LaSalle home is located. In fact, positive cases in Region 2 rose 212.4% from 12,108 cases in October 2020 to 37,825 cases in November 2020.

At the same time, LaSalle Home staff prolonged the COVID-19 test collection method. Mautino’s team found out home administrators tested staff over a three-day period which was not in compliance with the facility policy that allowed testing over two days.

“New tests of staff collected on Nov. 3, 4, and 5 were not delivered to the IDPH lab until Thursday, Nov. 5, even though the first two staff members from the outbreak were found to be positive by Sunday, Nov. 1. The IDPH lab published the majority of the test results on either Friday or Saturday,” Mautino stated. “Therefore the delay in getting testing results was primarily due to the collection method used by the LaSalle Home.”

Pritzker fired former IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia after the 36 veterans died. However, Republican lawmakers representing the home say the administration’s response was unconscionable and frustrating. Rep. David Welter (R-Morris) explained the governor’s office previously told lawmakers Chapa LaVia “duped them” in terms of the outbreak severity.

“Today’s report from the Auditor General proves Governor Pritzker was the one who deceived us,” Welter said. “His office had information from day one and failed to act.”

Welter also stressed that the governor’s initial investigation into the outbreak was flawed since he handpicked the inspector general and only had them look into IDVA’s mismanagement. Welter and Senate Deputy Republican Leader Sue Rezin (R-Morris) argue Pritzker purposely removed himself and IDPH leaders from scrutiny during the initial investigation.

“There’s zero accountability,” Rezin said. “And yet, the fact that he chooses instead to say you know what, ‘challenging times, we could’ve done better, this is what we’re doing to do better,’ and decides to blame Republicans. I mean, if that’s your answer, that’s not being a leader. These are challenging times. People have to stand up - they have to lead.”

Rezin filed several bills last year to prevent similar outbreaks from happening in the future. Still, none of her bills received a hearing in the Senate. Rezin said she will push for hearings to demand answers from the Pritzker administration and IDPH. She also said Democratic lawmakers should be just as outraged about the lack of transparency.

Rep. Lance Yednock (D-Ottawa) was one of the lead sponsors of the resolution requesting the independent audit of the deadly outbreak. He said the latest information revealed disappointing breakdowns in communication and protocol that likely led to more sickness and death.

“I’m frustrated and disappointed there wasn’t better coordination between state agencies to recognize and address the increasingly serious infection rate at LaSalle as it was happening,” Yednock stated. “As the audit found, staff should have been tested more regularly, and the Illinois Department of Public Health should have moved more quickly to visit the home.”

Pritzker criticized former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner for the fatal mismanagement of the Quincy Veterans’ Home Legionnaires’ outbreak in 2018.

“Given that LaSalle’s tragedy was much more deadly, the governor must surely agree that in this instance, his own leadership demonstrated a ‘callous disregard for human life’ and ‘fatal mismanagement’ of a veterans home,” said IL GOP Chairman Don Tracy. “If not, he should explain why.”

Pritzker told reporters that every agency in the state was in the worst time of the COVID-19 pandemic when the outbreak occurred. He said every employee was working extra hours and focused on keeping people alive.

“They did everything that they could. People died anyway,” Pritzker said. “But far fewer people because of the work that’s been done by the agencies and particularly by the Department of Public Health and Department of Veterans’ Affairs.”

The audit recommended that IDVA should ensure every veterans’ home has policies and procedures in place to mandate timely testing of residents and employees during COVID-19 outbreaks and ensure they are tested according to the policy. Auditors also recommended that IDPH should clearly define its role in monitoring COVID-19 outbreaks in Illinois veterans’ homes and develop policies that identify criteria mandating intervention at homes during outbreaks.

They also wrote that IDVA should ensure the director works with IDPH and the governor’s office during COVID-19 outbreaks to advocate for veterans living in the homes. Auditors stated the department should also fill the senior home administrator role and ensure the position includes monitoring and providing guidance to veterans’ homes during COVID-19 outbreaks.

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