State veterans agency launches investigation of La Salle Veterans Home COVID-19 outbreak

Report notes replacing hand sanitizer and points to slow test results as factors in outbreak

State agencies released two reports Tuesday that address the recent outbreak of COVID-19 at the Illinois Veterans Home in La Salle.

The Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs is adopting all recommendations in the reports in all four of its Illinois veterans homes and released the reports in their entirety to the public.

The administration also has ordered the Acting Inspector General from the Illinois Department of Human Services, to conduct an independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding the outbreak at the La Salle home and will address any findings from that investigation.

This investigation is aimed at uncovering any lapses in protocol and employee compliance with rules, which will enable IDVA to ensure best practices moving forward. Pending this investigation, all issues uncovered will be addressed expeditiously, officials said.

Upon receiving the reports, IDVA adopted all recommendations at the La Salle Veterans Home, including retraining staff on mask requirements, replacing one brand of hand sanitizer with a product more effective at fighting the virus, and strengthening the screening process for employees as they arrive for work and during periodic checks during the workday.

Using an alcohol-free foam hand sanitizer in mounted dispensers, including in resident rooms, was highlighted as potentially having an impact on the transmission of COVID-19 within the facility. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer is being immediately put into place and the old sanitizer removed.

The report noted a "big challenge with testing-related decisions" in an outbreak is the ability to get those results back in a timely manner. This seems to be a challenge with tests sent out to Chicago IDPH lab, which was necessary at the beginning of the outbreak, because the Springfield lab being temporarily closed.

"Recognition of an outbreak is difficult when test results trickle in, as the correlation between time and location is hard to demonstrate without all the information available. IDPH representative suggested that the Springfield lab should place a priority on the La Salle samples during the outbreak," the report stated.

The state will test with PCR test at IDPH lab for all staff to be performed every three days (all tests collected and at lab in 24 hours).

"As a proud Army veteran, I take the mission of safeguarding the wellbeing of our veteran heroes very personally,” said IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia in a press release. “These brave men and women sacrificed everything fighting for the freedoms we so often take for granted. It is our moral obligation to care for them just as they have cared for us. The recent outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent loss of lives at the La Salle Veterans Home is a tragedy. My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of those who have become ill and those who have passed on. The IDVA is committed to a transparent review of the circumstances surrounding the outbreak and has adopted all recommendations from the IDPH, CDC, CMS and U.S. VA moving forward.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, staff have been provided with full PPE. This has included N95 and surgical masks, shoe coverings, gowns, face shields, gloves, goggles and glasses. They have been educated on how to use this equipment and on steps they can take in their personal lives to limit their exposure to COVID-19. When observed, administrators and supervisors have immediately corrected improper use of PPE.

Residents and employees have been tested on a rolling basis, with testing significantly ramped up in recent months as the state testing infrastructure expanded. Before the positivity rate skyrocketed in La Salle County, employees were tested weekly per IDPH, CMS and CDC guidelines and employees received daily temperature screenings before entering the building. Residents were tested periodically and upon discovery of any changes with employees testing results.

“Long-term care facilities, like our Veterans’ homes, are at greater risk for COVID-19 spread,” said IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike. “Increased spread of the virus in the community can also threaten residents in long-term care facilities as health care workers can be exposed to COVID-19 while away from work and then inadvertently introduce the virus into the facility. We can all help protect our honored heroes in our Veterans’ homes by decreasing the amount of virus circulating in our communities by staying home as much as possible, wearing our masks, and watching our distance.”

Since the current outbreak at the home, employees are tested with rapid-result antigen tests prior to every shift and residents are tested every day. Daily screening processes have been intensified by including a rigorous interview by an RN, VNAC, or supervisor. If residents or employees show symptoms, they are immediately isolated and tested. Employees found positive and/or experiencing symptoms are sent home to self-isolate while residents remain isolated and under strict observation.

Staff who care for veterans in the homes live within the communities they serve. When community spread of the virus is high, staff can fall prey to infection no matter how conscientious they are about following protocols, which is why rigorous testing and health procedures were put in place.

As of Tuesday, La Salle County’s positivity rate currently sits at 20.8%.

— Shaw Media will update this story with more information from the released reports.

Derek Barichello

Derek is a Streator High and University of Illinois graduate. He worked at the Albany-Herald in Albany, Ga., and for Sauk Valley Media in Sterling, before returning to his hometown paper. He's now news editor for both the NewsTribune and The Times.