CHICAGO — Officials with two Illinois departments said they would not have done anything differently in terms of patient care in response to the Legionella outbreaks at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy.
Erica Jeffries, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, and
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, were grilled for four hours Tuesday before a joint hearing before the House and Senate veterans affairs' committees in Chicago on the outbreaks, which have claimed the lives of 13 residents and sickened dozens more since 2015.
“We received notification on what was going on, we scrambled into action, we put into place a plan to take immediate remediation steps and also find answers of what was going on and how to stop it,” Shah said, adding that the department consulted with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Veterans Home campus underwent a nearly $6.4 million upgrade to its water purification system, new water heaters and individual filters on fixtures such as shower heads after the 2015 outbreak. Jeffries also said the water is tested more than 3,000 times each month.
“We continue to find more cases because we are looking for more cases,” Jeffries testified.
However, some lawmakers were concerned that the General Assembly has not been presented with a plan to potentially stem future outbreaks at the campus, which has 349 residents.
“I appreciate trying to resolve the issue, but I still feel this is unacceptable,” said Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Chicago. “The Band-Aid needs to stop. A permanent solution needs to be found, and reports need to be filed with these committees on what the plans are.”
“How much longer and how many people have to die before we say, 'Enough is enough?' ” asked Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park.
Jeffries responded that “enough was enough” after one death.
Jeffries also disputed that resident Dolores French, 79, who died on Aug. 29, 2015, had not been seen by staff or residents for a few days, as her family claims in a lawsuit filed in the Illinois Court of Claims. It's one of 10 wrongful death lawsuits that has been filed against the state, and an 11th is expected.
“What we have documented in our electronic medical records is that her room was checked on Friday, Aug. 28, whereby our nursing staff went into her room, found it to be neat and tidy, but did not find Mrs. French there,” Jeffries said. “On the following day, we went back to Mrs. French's room and checked her room, and at the time, we did find her body, but unfortunately she passed away in her room.”
Jeffries otherwise would not comment on the pending litigation when speaking with reporters after the hearing.
Shah also defended not releasing information on the first Legionnaires' disease outbreak to the public until Aug. 27, 2015, six days after learning there were multiple cases on the Veterans Home campus. He said the department notified the home within 27 minutes of confirmation of more than one case and immediately suggested some remediation steps, such as turning off water fountains.
“We have to vet the facts,” Shah said. “We have to make sure that we can answer some basic questions — who's at risk, from where are they being infected and what can we do to prevent more people from getting it?”
Sen. Sam McCann, R-Carlinville, blasted Shah for the delay, calling on him to resign.
“Quite frankly, sir, you should resign, and if you don't, the governor should demand your resignation,” McCann said.
Gov. Bruce Rauner's office did not send a representative to the hearing. Rauner has been staying at the Illinois Veterans Home since late Thursday to get an “understanding of the clinical, water-treatment and residential operations of the home.
Multiple calls were made during the hearing by Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, for a capital bill that could be used to replace plumbing on the Veterans Home campus at an estimated cost of $25 million to $30 million, build a new facility on the campus to replace Elmore Infirmary, and also complete construction of a delayed veterans home in Chicago.
Rep. Randy Frese, R-Paloma, said he was encouraged by calls for making capital improvements at the Veterans Home and will work with legislators to make it happen.
“I think we need to coordinate it with the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs and with the Department of Public Health, and we need to coordinate it with the residents that are there at the Veterans Home,” Frese said. “They have a voice in this, too.”
Also in attendance Tuesday was the honor guard from American Legion Post 37 in Quincy. Cmdr. Dale Hill presented written testimony to the committees in support of the Illinois Veterans Home.
Before the hearing, Hill said he hoped there would be “better public awareness of (Legionella) as a public health issue throughout the state and throughout the country, and not just in the Veterans Home in Quincy.”
Sam Posner, associated director for epidemiological science for the CDC, said there were 6,000 cases of Legionnaires' disease across the country in 2017, which was up from 5,000 the year before. Illinois saw about 300 cases in 2017.
Posner said an aging population and aging infrastructure has contributed to an increase in the number of cases.
More committee hearings are expected, but no dates have been set. The General Assembly convenes for its spring session later this month.