EYE ON ILLINOIS: Still learning from Quincy, will La Salle provide similar lessons?

To see the future of investigations into the La Salle Veterans Home coronavirus outbreak, we need not look far into the past.

It was only five years ago when Legionnaires’ disease ripped through the veterans home in Quincy, and although the damage looks slight compared to the La Salle numbers, that says more about the egregious nature of the current tragedy. In Quincy Legionnaires’ affected 58 people and killed 12, unthinkable for a preventable bacterial infection with a 40-year history.

Last month I got an email from Tim Keane, a consultant with Legionella Risk Management who, along with researchers from Virginia Tech University, wrote a paper published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. The document, available at tinyurl.com/QuincyLD, explores whether deficiencies in the municipal water system contributed to the outbreak.

The paper notes four people with no exposure to the Quincy home contracted the disease at the same time as the outbreak. Three to six months earlier, “the primary disinfectant was changed and corrosion control was interrupted” in the local drinking water supply, “causing a sustained decrease in disinfectant residuals throughout Quincy’s distribution system.”

Keane further said the Quincy situation happened in the aftermath of national attention focused on the public water in Flint, Mich, “and yet no one saw the similarity, checked the lead levels in kids or checked what was going on at the municipal plant.”

The researchers gathered data while under contract with the state, Keane said, and their work shows a deeper analysis of the impact of a record rainstorm a few weeks before the first case at the home than what the Centers for Disease Control or Illinois Department of Public Health attempted. Although the state last year increased the requirement for disinfectant in municipal water supplies, Keane maintains state authorities have been suppressing coverage of a link between the storm and the outbreak, including by omitting such references from a report given to state Senators.

“These finding might be of particular interest to communities and water systems with much higher Legionnaires’ disease rates than other U.S. municipalities,” Keane wrote. “All appearances are that public health agencies involved in this investigation knowingly withheld information from the public and even likely from the city and the municipal water supplier.”

Legionnaires’ isn’t COVID, though both are killers. Quincy isn’t La Salle, though neither facility should be viewed as an island independent of its community. Yet the similarities are important: experts will be studying what happened at both veterans homes for years to come, and it’s quite likely people in power will try to deflect responsibility wherever possible.

Preventable illness and death are terrible, but it’s worse still if we refuse to learn and protect ourselves going forward.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.