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Lawmakers seek answers on vets’ home Legionnaires’ outbreak

By Greg Bishop 
Illinois News Network 

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs says it will move forward with a plan to update the aging Quincy Veterans Home facility following 13 deaths of Legionnaires’ disease in the past two years.

During a joint House and Senate veterans affairs committee hearing Tuesday in Chicago, lawmakers asked veterans affairs and public health officials about what is being done to deal with a Legionnaires’ outbreak that began in 2015.

State officials said there were 200 instances of Legionnaires’ in the entire state in 2015 with 53 of the cases in the Quincy Veterans Home alone. Center for Disease Control Dr. Sam Posner said that would be considered an epidemic.

In 2015, 12 veterans died. In October 2016, an additional veteran died of an illness associated with the disease.

Legionnaires’ is a respiratory virus that is contracted by breathing in water vapor that may contain the bacteria. In water pipes, legionella bacteria can grow on what’s called biofilm that accumulates in all water pipes. State officials said there’s still no known source of the problem.

Testing for legionella isn’t required at health facilities, public or private, but if there is a positive test the state requires a water management plan.

Department of Veterans Affairs Director Erica Jeffries said one reason there might be more cases of identified Legionnaires’ is because of increased testing. She said there are multiple tests per day being done on the water system at Quincy in the aftermath of the outbreak.

“We continue to find more cases because we are looking for more cases,” Jeffries told the legislative panel.

State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, said despite being a fiscal hawk, he’d support a capital plan to build a new facility or renovating an aged home.

“We need to build a new facility through renovation or use some of the 210 acres,” McSweeney said. “I’m one of the most fiscally conservative members [of the legislature]. I will support a capital bill to renovate the facility.”

State Sen. Tony Munoz, D-Chicago, also supported a capital bill for a new or renovated facility.

Jeffries said the state has a plan on standby and will move it forward, but didn’t provide any details.

McSweeney said it could cost $25 million to $50 million for a new facility at the Quincy campus, with 65 percent possibly qualifying for federal funds. He also said an additional $75 million would be needed to finish a Chicago facility that’s been on pause because of a lack of state funds or a capital plan. The suburban lawmaker said there would need to be a new capital plan, with some being deferred, to focus funds on veterans facilities to remedy the situation. That money wouldn’t come from the General Revenue Fund, he said.

Jefferies said another option is laying new water pipes along the old pipes to replace the aged infrastructure. That could cost up to $30 million to just update the piping, Jefferies said.

A combination of state and federal funds to the tune of more than $6 million has already been spent on the water system there.

However, there were concerns the legionella virus could be kicked up during construction. Posner said legionella is something that’s found everywhere and can be dusted up during construction.

Some on the panel criticized the state for delaying the public release of information for six days back in 2015. IDPH Director Dr. Nirav Shah said it was a matter of ensuring that all information was gathered before sending out a news release.

Republican Sen. Sam McCann of Plainview criticized Shah in a legislative hearing Tuesday because he doesn’t have Gov. Bruce Rauner’s cell phone number. Shah learned of an outbreak at Quincy on Aug. 21, 2015.

Democratic Rep. Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego questioned Shah about the timeline of the announcement. Kifowit thought the public should have been told earlier in August 2015 based on IDPH website information that Legionnaires’ has a gestation period of three to five days.

Shah said the important thing in such an emergency is to notify the facility. He said Quincy home staff were told within 27 minutes of learning about the outbreak and they were ordered to restrict water usage that “turned the tide on the epidemic.”

He notified Rauner’s senior staff on Aug. 24. The public was notified Aug. 27.

Shah added the IDPH website will be corrected because the gestation period is 10 to 12 days.

Rauner moved into the home in Quincy after the first of the year. He’s expected to provide a review of his experience sometime after his temporary stay this week.

–With staff reports

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