SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Lawmakers continue to learn new details about the deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans' Home. House members held two Veterans' Affairs hearings over the past week. On Friday, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee asked about the errors and lack of communication leading to 36 residents dying.
Many still have questions about the response time at the LaSalle Home. Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris) notes the facility had 171 COVID-19 cases before IDPH went to the home on November 12. Ten veterans had already died by that point in the outbreak.
Deputy Governor Sol Flores admits the administration should've done more to prevent the loss of life. Reflecting on the situation, Flores said she would've wanted the state to have a team at the facility sooner. However, blame has shifted back to the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
"We had assumed based on conversations that we had - multiple, hundreds of conversations throughout the pandemic - that on-the-ground staff at LaSalle were following infection control measures as laid out by the CDC," Flores explained.
She says the administration sent as many resources as possible to the facility once they understood the magnitude of the outbreak. That is also when Gov. JB Pritzker called for an investigation into what happened.
Holding the administration accountable
Rezin, who represents the veterans' home, is also furious that the Inspector General never interviewed anyone from the Pritzker administration during his investigation.
"The tragedy that unfolded at the LaSalle Veterans' Home cannot be understated," Rezin said. "The residents of the LaSalle Veterans' Home and their families trusted the Department of Veterans' Affairs with their care and our state failed that trust, leading to the death of 36 heroes."
Many lawmakers feel the Department of Public Health failed by not arriving on site until 11 days after the first known COVID-19 case. Still, Dr. Ngozi Ezike wants people to remember the timing of the LaSalle outbreak. She told committee members Friday that IDPH was trying to address more than 600 COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in November.
"We have an infection control staff of four individuals. One of them passed away three weeks before this event," Ezike said. "In no situation would we be able to attend to the outbreaks that were happening. If it was an isolated event, we could probably drop everything and be there in hours."
Ezike also emphasized IDPH couldn't hire 600 people to have someone helping at every site. Meanwhile, the Inspector General feels IDPH was on notice during the outbreak. He also found the Department of Veterans' Affairs didn't ask for assistance early enough to prevent the deaths.
"We saw that there was communication there," said Inspector General Peter Neumer. "But, there was some uncertainty, at least it appeared to us, uncertainty as to what would ring the bell. I think that is something that could use attention."
Fix the communication
Sen. Tom Cullerton (D-Villa Park) chairs the Veterans' Affairs Committee. Based on Neumer's report, Cullerton said the lack of cooperation from former IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia is unacceptable.
Several lawmakers from both chambers feel Chapa LaVia had no right to opt-out of participating in the investigation. Cullerton said it's clear IDVA has several areas needing significant improvement.
"While the testimony today provided some clarity to the situation, we need to see real changes to the communication methods that failed these veterans," Cullerton said.
The Democrat, also a veteran, said he believes that current IDVA Director Terry Prince will implement the necessary changes to prevent another tragedy.
Rezin also asked Cullerton for help moving four of her proposals that could address the problems within IDVA. She stressed that all of her bills are stuck in the Assignments Committee. Cullerton assured he would "move the advisement up the chain of command."