QUINCY — Email messages show Illinois officials worked to put a positive spin on news coverage as a deadly Legionnaires disease outbreak first unfolded at a state veterans’ home.
Chicago’s WBEZ obtained emails between state and local public health officials and the state agency that oversees the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy, where Legionnaires’ has contributed to 13 deaths since 2015. Dozens more residents have been sickened, including several this year.
The emails include exchanges between officials and press aides prior to issuing the first news release in August 2015 confirming eight cases of Legionnaires’ at the home. The state has acknowledged the release was issued six days after officials knew they were dealing with an “epidemic.”
In the email chain, a spokesman for the Veterans’ Affairs department suggests messaging that includes “there is no cause for alarm.” In a separate email, an epidemiologist at a Quincy hospital described a draft of the news release as “smoke to cover peoples (sic) butts.”
WBEZ received the emails despite efforts by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration to keep the messages secret. The administration denied open records act requests from the news station. They’ve also fought document requests from members of a state legislative committee that’s investigating the outbreak.
The station ultimately received some emails from the western Illinois county where the home is located, and where local health officials were coordinating a response with the state.
WBEZ first reported last year that 11 families are suing the state of Illinois for negligence, arguing deaths at the home were preventable. Experts have called the problems there “unusual” and “troubling.”
Rauner, a Republican seeking a second term this year, has defended how his administration handled the crisis, saying he wouldn’t have done anything differently. His spokeswoman, Rachel Bold, didn’t directly address the emails on Tuesday.
“The safety of our veterans and staff at the Quincy Veterans Home is, and always has been, a priority for this administration,” Bold said in a statement. “We take very seriously the importance of protecting our nation’s heroes.”
But Rauner’s opponents said the emails show his administration was more concerned with how they were perceived in the media and by the public than they were about fixing the problems.
“The contents of these emails confirm our worst fears and suspicions about this Governor,” said GOP state Rep. Jeanne Ives, who’s challenging Rauner in the March 20 primary. “It is not that he was inept, an outsider trying to figure his way around state government. But that he and his administration were as cold and calculating at they seemed.”
U.S. Army veteran Eugene Miller, 86, died Aug. 28, 2015, hours after officials from the home told his family he had tested positive for Legionnaires, a waterborne form of pneumonia. By then, there had been three other cases of Legionnaires’, dating to July.
Miller’s son later sent a message to a county health official expressing his concerns about how his father’s case was handled. The message was shared with press aides for state officials, who discussed “talking points” in response.