Eye On Illinois: Proposed changes to vets home outbreak rules should be upscaled

State has varying degrees of responsibility for tens of thousands who could be affected by viral spread

Did we learn a lesson?

This is a good question to ask any time there is an obvious failure of the public trust, as clearly was true with regards to a COVID-19 outbreak at the La Salle Veterans Home. Starting in early November, the virus infected 208 staff and members and residents, killing 36.

Two lawmakers representing La Salle County are attempting to lead the state in reacting by introducing legislation they say would’ve spared those lives. State Sen. Sue Rezin and Rep. David Welter, both Morris Republicans, introduced Senate Bill 2251 Monday. At first blush, the incorporated rules are logical and effective.

The core component is defining the term outbreak: at least two cases of an infectious disease linked to a veterans home within 48 hours of initial diagnosis. When that happens, administrators would have to notify the state veterans and health departments immediately. Those agencies then would send someone for a site visit by no later than the end of the next business day, and the veterans department would post findings to its website.

Rezin and Welter said the Auditor General’s Office made similar recommendations in its March 2019 review of the 2015 Legionnaire’s disease outbreak at the Quincy Veterans Home.

“The Pritzker Administration had nine months to implement these recommendations before the pandemic began, yet they failed to do so with devastating consequences,” said Rezin. “They have had another three months to implement these recommendation since this tragic outbreak, yet again they still have not done so.”

Those words feed an ongoing debate about the balance between the executive and legislative branches, which isn’t ideal in normal times and seems more askew during the last year. Legislative committees involved in oversight of these agencies and facilities have conducted hearings following the outbreak, but if it takes an actual Senate Bill to enact reform, then let’s get those wheels spinning.

As proposed, SB 2251 doesn’t go far enough in that it only addresses state veterans homes, which covers four inpatient sites housing about 800 veterans. The state, and local governmental units, have assumed varying degrees of responsibility for tens of thousands of other children and adults in corrections, foster care, college dorms, long-term care facilities. Are we doing right by all those populations?

Trying to solve every problem at once is a good way to make sure nothing gets fixed, so I wouldn’t suggest stalling the Rezin-Welter plan while waiting for broader legislation. But as SB 2251 advances, it’s important to consider how its concepts could be scaled across the larger government and make sure we don’t miss another change to learn from a possibly preventable disaster.

Let’s not wait to learn the next lesson the hard way.

• 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.