SPRINGFIELD — The November COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ home has killed a 34th resident, the facility reported Friday — just as attorneys for four families of dead residents announced forthcoming lawsuits against the state.
The facility has not seen a new COVID-19 case among residents since Dec. 1. But in November, the virus raged through the home, eventually sickening the majority of residents and killing more than a quarter of the home’s residents since the first deaths were reported on Nov. 11 — Veterans’ Day.
On Friday, well-known nursing home personal injury law firm Levin & Perconti announced it was launching investigations on behalf of four families of dead veterans, a precursor to filing suit against the state.
Michael Bonamarte, an attorney handling the cases, said it was indefensible for the outbreak at LaSalle to have become so widespread and deadly eight months into the pandemic, especially after healthcare professionals both in Illinois and around the world learned from nursing home outbreaks in the spring.
“At this point in the game, with all the knowledge we have, in my opinion, it’s inexcusable to see an outbreak of this nature,” Bonamarte told NPR Illinois. “It’s mind-boggling to me how something like that can happen at this stage in the pandemic.”
Bonamarte, whose firm has been fielding calls about COVID deaths in long-term care facilities since March, said the LaSalle outbreak was the worst he’d seen.
“There’s definitely some [long-term care] facilities…that may have had more deaths,” Bonamarte said. “But honestly, this has got to be the highest number of cases I’ve seen in a condensed period of time like that throughout the entire pandemic.”
The families have not yet filed suit, but when they do, they’ll be eligible for up to $2 million dollars in damages. The cap on awards that can be made by the Illinois Court of Claims was increased from $100,000 to $2 million in 2018 after the General Assembly passed a law in the wake of 13 deaths at the Quincy Veterans’ Home after a Legionnaires’ outbreak in 2015.
During his years-long campaign for governor, then-candidate JB Pritzker frequently pointed to the Legionnaires’ outbreak as a failure of leadership on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s part, and pinned blame for the veterans’ deaths on the Republican. But in handling the LaSalle crisis, Gov. JB Pritzker separated his response from Rauner’s by pointing to the alleged cover-up that ensued after the Quincy outbreak was discovered.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, Pritzker’s administration released preliminary reports from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs based on site visits from the two agencies to the home in mid-November while the outbreak was still ongoing.
The initial findings included LaSalle home employees not wearing masks or social distancing while in staff areas of the facility, a lax system of self-reporting symptoms and taking COVID-19 tests but having to wait sometimes days for the results, and staff members allegedly attending a Halloween party together a day before the first four cases among residents and staff were reported at the home.
Bonamarte pointed to those findings as the basis for the cases he’s set to bring on behalf of the four families in the next few weeks.
“It’s hard for me to believe there was anything worse than this,” Bonamarte said of the LaSalle outbreak as compared to other long-term care facility outbreaks in Illinois since March.
“And that’s not just bad luck — it’s just — it’s a lack of leadership, a lack of safety protocols, of following the rules. It’s just basic stuff known for a long time now.”
Residents are now given daily COVID-19 tests, and staff also take COVID rapid tests on their way into the facility. Illinois National Guard medical staff have also been helping at the LaSalle facility, as well as the Quincy and Manteno homes since last week.
Other attention-grabbing bullet points from IDPH and the U.S. DVA included a finding that wall-mounted dispensers were stocked with alcohol-free hand sanitizer — which the IDVA testified last week is now approved for killing the COVID-19 virus, but wasn’t at the time — and that some staff members returned to work even after testing positive for COVID.
However, CDC guidelines specify that in times of staffing shortages, symptom-free COVID-positive healthcare workers are able to volunteer to work if they’re already working in a COVID unit and are wearing head-to-toe PPE.
The LaSalle Veterans’ Home is one of four such skilled nursing facilities for veterans run by the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs. In testimony provided to two legislative panels looking into the outbreak in the last month, IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia has stressed that the veterans’ homes often see spates of illnesses and deaths even in normal times.
But during a marathon House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing last week, Chapa LaVia took responsibility in the chain of command for the outbreak.
“Ultimately I’m responsible for our veterans’ homes and our veterans’ wellbeing,” she said. “It’s my job to make sure we’re doing everything we can to keep our heroes safe.”
Chapa LaVia made those statements during a heated exchange with Republican State Rep. Jeff Keicher (R-Sycamore), and moments later defended her handling of the aftermath of the outbreak.
“If there’s another idea, please bring it forward right now,” Chapa LaVia asked of the House panel. “These are the resources and tools I have to investigate my own department and to see what went wrong.”
Pritzker earlier this month fired the LaSalle home’s former administrator, Angela Mehlbrech, and put the facility’s head of nursing on administrative leave, pending an investigation by the Illinois Department of Human Services’ inspector general.
Both the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the House Judiciary – Civil Committee have also opened their own inquiries into the outbreak. Republican critics like State Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris), who represents the facility in her district, have repeatedly asked why it took weeks for the IDPH and U.S. DVA site visits to occur after the outbreak began.
Asked last week whether he still had confidence in Chapa LaVia, Pritzker said he was waiting on the results of the DHS investigation.
“I want to know everything that occurred here and that’s why the investigation is ongoing is going to be extraordinarily informative,” Pritzker said. “I’m going to hold accountable people who deserve to be.”
As of Friday, the Illinois Department of Public Health is reporting 7,559 total COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities since the pandemic began — a figure that accounts for 50% of all confirmed deaths from the virus in Illinois.
IDPH also reports long-term care facilities in Illinois have reported 59,970 total COVID-19 cases since March, which accounts for roughly 7% of all cases in Illinois. The proportion of cases in long-term care facilities to cases in all other settings had steadily fallen since the spring, but has stayed consistent as Illinois was hit with a second wave of the virus in late October and early November.