‘Nobody cared to do anything about it at the governor’s office,’ Rezin said of La Salle Veterans Home COVID-19 outbreak

Senator calls for a joint hearing of the House, Senate veterans committees

After an investigative report was released Friday documenting failures by administrative leadership at the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs in a COVID-19 outbreak at the Illinois Veterans Home in La Salle, state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, called Tuesday for more accountability from Gov. JB Pritzker.

Rezin said the report calls into question leadership at the IDVA, but she said it was surprising how little the Illinois Department of Public Health and the governor’s office were involved in overseeing the outbreak that resulted in 36 deaths from complications related to COVID-19.

Rezin has asked repeatedly since the outbreak: “Why did it take the Illinois Department of Public Health 12 days to visit?”

In a Tuesday news release, Rezin called for a joint hearing of the House and Senate veterans committees on the report’s findings.

“What seems oddly bizarre is how little the governor is mentioned throughout the 50-page report,” Rezin said. “Either this is a result of his lack of leadership throughout the disaster, or it is an intentional omission by the [Office of Inspector General], who reports to his administration. This is exactly why we need a hearing to discuss the report’s findings and have an independent investigation conducted by the auditor general.”

The governor said Friday at a news conference that he appointed former IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia because she was instrumental in investigating an outbreak at the Quincy Veterans Home in 2015.

“She seemed like an ideal person to be able to root out our problems in our veterans homes,” Pritzker said. “But I have to admit if I knew then what I know now, I would not have hired her.”

The governor’s office has not responded to questions emailed from Shaw Media.

Pritzker requested the inspector general’s report that was released Friday. Several Chicago media outlets reported that Pritzker said he asked for the investigation “so that we would all know what happened and we would all know how to fix it” at an unrelated news conference.

When asked previously about the outbreak, the governor blamed the high rate of positive COVID-19 cases in La Salle County at that time.

Rezin said Pritzker’s administration ignored critical recommendations from the auditor general’s 2019 performance audit, calling for improved communications and policies and procedures between the IDVA and IDPH during an outbreak.

“Despite skyrocketing cases and rising death counts, the governor’s office was just as AWOL as the inspector general found the veterans home director,” Rezin said. “It took several weeks into the outbreak for the governor’s office to get involved, and even then, it was only reactionary steps designed to deflect from their fatal mismanagement.”

Earlier this year, Rezin filed a bill that would require the IDPH to make a site visit once an outbreak begins, to correlate with the audit’s recommendation. The bill has been held up in committee, the senator said.

Rezin said the report said the IDPH waited to be asked for assistance before taking action. She said the agency’s role is regulatory and the IDPH’s leadership team received daily information on the severity of the outbreak. Rezin said an IDPH contractor said during a legislative hearing how the IDPH’s lack of an immediate on-site response hurt efforts in controlling the spread of COVID-19.

Rezin said the state didn’t respond to recommendations made in a March 2019 performance audit following the deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the Quincy Veterans Home, noting that the Pritzker administration ignored a number of these recommendations.

According to legislative testimony by the IDPH’s chief of staff, the agency had no policy for conducting on-site monitoring visits in response to a confirmed outbreak.

Rezin said the Pritzker administration did not implement new communication protocols to ensure the IDPH was fully aware of the severity of the outbreak since agency personnel failed to arrive on-site for nearly two weeks. Despite the auditor general’s recommendation, there were no mechanisms to ensure Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations were being followed at the La Salle home or any other state-run facility.

“A La Salle Veterans Home nurse summarized the outbreak response by saying, ‘Nobody seemed to know what to do,’ ” Rezin said. “Nobody indeed knew what to do at the veterans home, and nobody cared to do anything about it at the governor’s office.”

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.