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Illinois’ race for governor is once again clouded by deaths at veterans’ homes

 Gov. JB Pritzker is facing criticism after COVID-19 deaths at a LaSalle veterans' home, years after he criticized former Gov. Bruce Rauner for Legionnaire's disease deaths at a Quincy veterans' home.
Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press, File Photo
Gov. JB Pritzker is facing criticism after COVID-19 deaths at a LaSalle veterans' home, years after he criticized former Gov. Bruce Rauner for Legionnaire's disease deaths at a Quincy veterans' home.

Democrat JB Pritzker’s successful 2018 run for governor involved hitting his Republican rival, then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, over and over for the “fatal mismanagement” of multiple Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks that were tied to 13 deaths at the state-run Quincy Veterans’ Home.

Another gubernatorial election is here, and Republicans are using that same political strategy against Pritzker, accusing him of “criminal negligence” for three dozen COVID-19 deaths at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home two years ago.

The political attack worked once, contributing to a nearly 16-percentage-point drubbing Pritzker inflicted on Rauner. Illinois GOP leaders are hoping it will work again, this time in their candidates’ favor.

In both instances, the horrible death tolls at LaSalle and Quincy were shocking, and families suffered. Both tragedies unfolded in state-run facilities for veterans, with poor decision-making by state officials in charge of the homes. Audits bore that out, and litigation arose in both cases.

Republicans are seizing on those similarities to poke at the governor’s leadership and highlight what the GOP regards as hypocrisy by Pritzker. But Democrats point out that some of the facts surrounding the two deadly catastrophes are vastly different.

Pritzker has tried to make that case. Likewise, the son of one victim in Quincy sees important distinctions. And a nationally-known public health expert with no partisan interest in Illinois’ gubernatorial election this fall said comparing Quincy to LaSalle is an act of medical ignorance.

“Not even going to the politics, but I think it’s just sloppy thinking overall because you can’t compare an environmental pathogen that is not spread person-to-person to a pandemic pathogen that is spread efficiently from person to person,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security who was extensively quoted by WBEZ after the Quincy Legionnaires’ outbreaks.

“There’s no analogy there,” he said.

Airborne virus vs infrastructure-based illness

What hit Quincy and at LaSalle were two very different illnesses that killed victims in different ways, some preventable and some not.

The three dozen LaSalle residents who died from COVID-19 were victims of an airborne virus spread undetectably from person to person in the air before preventative vaccines were available.

What’s more, according to a newly released state audit, new COVID-19 cases had more than tripled from the month ahead of the LaSalle outbreak in the 20-county north-central Illinois region that included the home. That means COVID-19 was essentially wherever people were at — private nursing homes, schools, businesses, churches and other places in addition to being inside LaSalle.

At Quincy, an earlier state audit found, stagnant water that had been inside a large hot-water heater taken offline for repairs was improperly allowed into the home’s plumbing system, which itself was suspected of also factoring into the formation of Legionnaires’ disease. Victims are believed to have breathed in the contaminants during showers, physical therapy visits to hot tubs or potentially whenever the hot-water spigots in their room sinks were opened. Residents didn’t spread it to one another.

It was an infrastructure failure. So long as water free of the Legionella bacteria is running through the pipes, Legionnaires’ can be kept at bay.

To Adalja, it is all proof the two tragedies are hard to compare.

“Whether or not it’s politicians making that [comparison] or whether it’s a science student making that, it’s just a wrong way to think about these two pathogens. You can’t look at every disease the same way because they all have different characteristics and different modes of transmission, different control mechanisms,” he said. “To me, the fact that people are trying to compare Legionnaires’ disease with COVID-19 tells me that they know nothing about either disease.”

Difference in notification

What’s more, vital life-saving information about Legionnaires’ disease turning up at Quincy was initially withheld from the residents and family members by the Rauner administration as people died. By contrast, at LaSalle, the state began posting online notices of positive COVID-19 cases at the home on Nov. 1, 2020, six days before the first death was recorded. That notification process was the result of a change in state law that arose directly from missteps at Quincy.

Families at Quincy didn’t have the early chance of pulling their loved ones out of the facility as Legionnaires’ spread. Families at LaSalle, because of the notices, at least were armed with basic information that could have afforded them that choice as COVID-19 erupted.

Last month, the release of an audit of the LaSalle tragedy by Auditor General Frank Mautino was political chum for state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, and Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin. Both used it as a basis to attack the Pritzker administration.

Mautino’s audit faulted the state Public Health Department, claiming it did “not identify and respond to the seriousness of the outbreak” at LaSalle quickly enough. The audit also questioned whether the agency visited the home soon enough or offered timely advice to LaSalle on how to slow the spread of COVID-19. The audit went on to cite problems with staff and resident testing.

“I’m sickened by the fact that JB Pritzker and his administration sat idly by instead of springing into action to save the lives of those who served our country and defended our freedoms,” Irvin said. “This is the same person who blasted his predecessor time and time again for the tragedy that occurred at the Quincy Veterans’ Home when 13 veterans lost their lives due to a Legionnaires’ breakout.

“He swore that he would do better as governor,” Irvin said. “He failed.”

Asked if what unfolded at LaSalle rose to the level of “criminal negligence,” Irvin didn’t hesitate: “Absolutely.” Soon thereafter, Irvin had an advertisement prepared to help make his case to voters.

Bailey accused Pritzker of blame-shifting for his administration’s handling of LaSalle, calling it “downright embarrassing” considering the governor campaigned against Rauner for his administration’s botched Quincy response.

Pritzker has acknowledged mistakes were made at LaSalle. But he argued what happened at the home was the result of both the pandemic surging statewide and Republicans refusing to embrace public health mitigations, such as indoor masking, a stance that drew wide acceptance in GOP-friendly turf downstate.

Bailey, for example, was removed from the Illinois House in May of 2020 for refusing to wear a mask while still a member of that legislative chamber, and he waged an ultimately losing legal battle to undo Pritzker’s public health orders related to COVID-19.

“We were at the dawn of the worst surge to date. And you may remember, this is before we had vaccines,” Pritzker said at a press conference after the release of Mautino’s audit. “We were working against Republican elected officials who told people to defy mitigation efforts. We told people that they needed to follow those mitigations, but Republicans told them that they need not wear masks….They told people that COVID wasn’t serious.

“Those lies put people’s lives at risk, especially the most vulnerable, even as my team and I worked 18 hours a day for nine months straight to fight them,” the governor said.

Reports on what happened

In 2021, Pritzker commissioned and released his own report about what went wrong at LaSalle. Findings by acting inspector general of the Illinois Department of Human Services, Peter Neumer, revealed a lack of preparation, poor communication and training and an ignorance of proper infectious disease protocols.

And in particular, Neumer singled out the then-head of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Linda Chapa Lavia, a former Democratic House member from Aurora who helped oversee hearings into Quincy while in the legislature. Neumer described her as being a disengaged agency director who seemingly had “abdicated’ her authority” to her chief of staff and noted her refusal to cooperate with his investigation.

Chapa Lavia resigned in January 2021, three months ahead of Neumer’s report, coinciding with a general Pritzker administration housecleaning. Earlier, the governor’s office ousted the LaSalle administrator and the facility’s director of nursing.

“There were some management faults that occurred,” Pritzker said, “and as you know, I did hold people accountable, and I did fire people who [were] in those positions.”

But the believability of Pritzker’s defense for his response to what happened at LaSalle hinges on the political lens through which a person is viewing.

State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Aurora, chairwoman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, led much of the legislative response to the state’s failings at Quincy and sponsored the legislation requiring notifications of communicable disease outbreaks that was put into use at LaSalle.

She sees distinct differences between the two tragedies, starting with Rauner’s unwillingness to take responsibility for Quincy’s mistakes early on and Pritzker ordering an assessment of what went wrong at LaSalle and making it public ahead of an election. But the overarching difference between the two situations was the scope of the pandemic and how it left no place in Illinois untouched, she said.

“I think everybody knows how hard it was to get through COVID just on a personal level, much less trying to minimize the death rate of the state of Illinois and trying to keep hospitals open and trying to keep our veterans safe and trying to manage a lot — plus PPE and vaccinations and getting needles in arms,” she said. “Overall, I think the circumstances are completely different.”

State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, sees it differently.

Rezin, the No. 2-ranking Republican in the Illinois Senate, represents the legislative district in which LaSalle is located and has been a frequent critic of the governor’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreaks there. She faults his administration — the Illinois Department of Public Health, specifically — for waiting 11 days to make its first onsite visit to the home, a delay she believes cost lives.

At Quincy, by contrast, the Illinois Department of Public Health was onsite within three days of the second confirmed Legionnaires’ case.

“Then-candidate Pritzker ran as a candidate for governor on the fact that he would make sure that the outbreak in the Quincy home would never happen again. What we’ve seen is not only has it happened in LaSalle, but the onsite visit…truly allowed this disease to spread throughout the entire home. It took the Pritzker administration much longer to respond than it did the Rauner Administration for the Legionnaires’ outbreak in Quincy,” Rezin told WBEZ.

Pritzker himself attributed the lag in an onsite visit by state public health officials to concerns that they inadvertently could bring more COVID-19 into the home than was already there. The agency was in daily contact with officials at LaSalle before the first onsite visit, he said.

Rezin bristles particularly at Pritzker singling out Republicans for any role in the rapid spread of COVID-19 at LaSalle.

“The problem is that this administration continues to blame other people and blame the Republicans. It’s very frustrating for me. How can it be the Republicans’ fault when his administration and the Department of Public Health that his administration works with clearly dropped the ball?” she said.

Political football tiresome to victim’s family

Tim Miller, whose father Eugene was among the 13 Legionnaires’ victims to die at Quincy, said he is tired of seeing political finger-pointing from either party after yet another public health tragedy at a state veterans’ home.

“It shouldn’t just come down to, ‘OK, well, when we were in, we got hammered for this, and now you’re in and there were mistakes made and so now you’re going to get hammered for it,’ ” Miller said. “It just seems to be a back-and-forth thing that never solves anything. Just put the politics aside. Work together. Come up with plans to protect people. Come up with plans to keep our heroes safe and our most vulnerable safe.”

Miller, who filmed a campaign commercial for Pritzker in 2018, acknowledged that the “buck stops” with the governor since he was in power when the tragedy occurred at LaSalle. But Miller said the level of accountability Pritzker has displayed differs from Rauner, who was slow to accept responsibility for what happened at Quincy.

“It is a positive thing to see Gov. Pritzker address a possible leadership failure and to see him take action and fire that person and not just kind of circle the wagons up and protect that person because it may look bad on him,” he said, referring to Chapa Lavia, the former agency director in charge of LaSalle. “I mean he’s admitted that it maybe was not a good hire. He admitted things went wrong. So I’ve got to kind of respect him for that.”

“That was much different than what happened here in Quincy,” Miller said.

Ultimately, whether voters give Pritzker that kind of credit won’t be known until after November.

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.

Copyright 2022 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.

Dave McKinney, state politics reporter at WBEZ, spent 19 years as the Chicago Sun-Times Springfield bureau chief with additional stops at Reuters and the Daily Herald. His work also has been published in Crain's Chicago Business, the New York Times and Chicago Magazine.