SPRINGFIELD — Three months after an investigation into the COVID outbreak that killed 36 residents at the state-run veterans’ home in LaSalle found the facility’s management was “ineffective, reactive and…chaotic” responding to the virus’ spread, Republicans in the Illinois House are once again agitating for more information from Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration.
GOP members are also renewing their call for Attorney General Kwame Raoul to open a criminal probe into the fatal outbreak, which infected nearly all the residents at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home last fall, killing more than a quarter of the facility’s population, and spreading to more than 100 staff members.
But Republicans, who are in the superminority in the General Assembly, have not received answers from those Democratic leaders in months, and are turning up the volume on the issue has largely faded into the background of Illinois’ political discourse.
In communications obtained by NPR Illinois, the top attorney in Pritzker’s office last month blamed the two-month delay in responding to LaSalle-related document requests from a House Republican member on the fact the member sent his formal demand via the U.S. Postal Service to Pritzker’s statehouse office, which also receives a high volume of mail from the general public.
“I regret that our response was not more timely and assure you that the delay was unintentional,” Pritzker’s General Counsel, Ann Spillane, wrote in her letter to State Rep. Dan Swanson (R-Alpha), the minority spokesman on the Illinois House’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Swanson and several other Republicans requested any documents, emails and other information about to a broad scope of issues related to the outbreak, including a 2019 report that contained suggestions to improve infectious disease protocol — suggestions that investigators looking into the LaSalle outbreak said were ignored.
Spillane told Swanson that Pritzker’s administration was working on his request, which governor’s office spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh confirmed.
“We are working to provide the information he requested soon,” Abudayyeh said. “[The Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs] has provided many, many documents previously to the [veterans’ affairs] committee, and is providing more, as well as [the Illinois Department of Public Health].
In the early days of the facility’s outbreak, Pritzker initiated an investigation into how the virus spread out of control at LaSalle, and nearly five months later, the findings were scathing. One nurse who spoke to investigators was quoted in the resulting report as saying, “nobody seemed to know what to do.” The investigation placed blame for the uncontrolled outbreak on a variety of factors, including lack of preparation, absentee leadership, lax COVID protocols and poor communication not just within the facility, but at the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
Lawmakers of both parties expressed outrage after Pritzker’s administration published the investigation in late April. But Republicans were eager to point out the LaSalle COVID outbreak’s parallels to fatal mismanagement of a Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak that killed 15 residents at the state-run veterans’ home in Quincy under former Gov. Bruce Rauner — a key weakness Pritzker exploited to his advantage in his 2018 campaign against the Republican.
The investigation into the LaSalle outbreak found former Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Linda Chapa LaVia, who resigned from the job in January, did not participate much in the day-to-day operations of her agency, never filled a key role that would oversee the state’s four veterans’ homes and left much of the decision-making power in the hands of her overworked chief of staff.
Subsequent hearings after the report’s release furthered that narrative, and Pritzker said he regretted hiring Chapa LaVia, a former Democratic lawmaker who played a leading role in inquiries about the Quincy Legionnaires’ outbreak.
But GOP lawmakers questioned why Pritzker’s office and the Illinois Department of Public Health’s involvement in monitoring the outbreak was not within the scope of the LaSalle investigation completed by the Department of Human Services’ inspector general earlier this year — an issue Swanson pushed in his May letter. But Spillane wrote back what DHS Inspector General Peter Neumer already told legislators: he determined the scope of his investigation.
Swanson shot back at the governor’s office in a subsequent letter last week, “implor[ing]” Pritzker “to release the requested documents so the General Assembly can review and take the appropriate steps necessary to keep our nation’s heroes safe.”
A letter sent from 26 House Republicans to the attorney general’s office last week was much more pointed. Beginning just hours after the damning report on the LaSalle outbreak was published, GOP lawmakers have demanded Raoul investigate any possible criminal negligence on the part of the facility’s management or staff during the virus’ surge through the home.
Though Raoul’s office has communicated its receipt of the Republicans’ requests via media, as well as indicated it had no plans to open a criminal probe, the GOP members claim they have not received any response from Raoul’s office in the last three months.
“This is not acceptable,” the letter said. “Continued stonewalling willingly confirm the fears of the families who lost their loved ones that the executive branch has something to hide and is resisting transparency and accountability.”
In early 2021, Raoul’s office closed a years-long criminal investigation into the handling of a Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak at the state-run veterans’ home in Quincy, which killed 13 in Gov. Bruce Rauner’s first year in office in 2015. Raoul wrapped up the probe without filing any charges, explaining to WBEZ that not every investigation will lead to charges.
WBEZ spent years investigating the deadly outbreak at Quincy and found Rauner’s office ignored advice from experts’ and withheld information from the public as the outbreak unfolded. Raoul’s predecessor, then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan, opened a criminal investigation into the Quincy outbreak, which was revealed a month before the November 2018 election where Pritzker easily defeated Rauner.
“Emotionally you know that there’s nothing that replaces a life,” Raoul told WBEZ this winter. “Nor would trying to make a criminal charge where it doesn’t exist. You can acknowledge that a wrong has taken place and still at the same time acknowledge that it’s not criminal.”
Since long-term care facility residents and staff began getting vaccinated in late December, COVID infections in the state’s four veterans’ homes have been at a minimum. But notification letters published by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs indicate that since July 1, 19 staff members at the Quincy facility have tested positive for COVID, along with one resident, who has since recovered.
The recent uptick in infected staff members coincides with the rise of the more transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19, which has driven up cases and hospitalizations, especially in western Illinois where the Quincy home is located.