Officials say veterans homes have reformed after deadly COVID-19 outbreak, but staffing challenges still exist

Lawmakers discuss audit of LaSalle Veterans Home outbreak that killed 36 residents

Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Terry Prince (third from left) testifies before the Illinois Legislative Audit Commission at the Capitol this week. He was testifying regarding an audit of a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home that killed 36 residents in 2020.

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois’ Department of Veterans Affairs director told a legislative panel this week that although state-run veterans homes have better policies in place after a COVID-19 outbreak that killed 36 residents at the LaSalle Veterans Home in 2020, understaffing remains a challenge.

“The need for long-term care will explode over the next 20 years,” Terry Prince told the Legislative Audit Commission.

He predicted long-term care populations would grow by 200% to 500% in that span.

Prince said that although IDVA has employees who “are dedicated and devoted and willing to work overtime,” the department also has let its census decrease at state-run veterans homes to keep staff-to-patient ratios sustainable.

“It could be easy to say, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna fill the Quincy Veterans Home and fill it all the way up to 400 people,’ but you have to have the staff to do so,” he said.

He said staffing remains difficult even though Illinois’ “fantastic” benefits package for staff at veterans homes is “nearly $40,000 higher than the civilian equivalent.”

As for responding to COVID-19 outbreaks, Prince said the department is in a much better place than it was in 2020.

Beginning in October that year, the LaSalle home experienced a COVID-19 outbreak that sickened almost 200 people – a whopping 85% of residents and 35% of staff tested positive for the virus, which eventually killed three dozen residents.

The deadly outbreak led to legislative hearings and scrutiny of the response from Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration.

The Illinois General Assembly called for an audit, which was published in 2022. The 12-member Legislative Audit Commission held a hearing to review the audit Wednesday.

The audit made three major recommendations, including mandating testing of staff and residents during COVID-19 outbreaks – defined as two or more cases – and delineating responsibilities between the IDVA and Illinois Department of Public Health.

Additionally, the audit recommended that the governor’s office increase oversight of administrative staff and create a senior home administrator position within the IDVA.

“I want to make sure that it’s recognized that this agency threw everything at this situation as they did during the COVID crisis,” Prince said.

IDVA Assistant Director Anthony Vaughn told the panel that when he arrived at LaSalle toward the end of the outbreak in December 2020 as the home’s newly appointed interim administrator, he found “a dedicated staff looking to do the right thing.”

But he also compared the scene with a “Marine Corps unit that’s just been through a big battle.”

“And they’re still recovering, and they’re still hurting, but they want the leadership to be able to move on,” he said.

Although a 2021 report from the Illinois Department of Human Services inspector general found fault with IDVA’s response, the auditor general’s report was more critical of the IDPH.

The auditor general’s office described the previous IDHS inspector general report as “flawed” for its reliance on interviews rather than documentation.

On Wednesday, Scott Wahlbrink of the auditor general’s office told lawmakers that the IDPH was not responsive to the crisis even though officials there were repeatedly made aware “on almost a daily basis” from their counterparts at the IDVA.

“IDPH did not identify and respond to the seriousness of the outbreak,” Wahlbrink said. “It was the IDVA chief of staff who ultimately had to request assistance.”

That chief of staff, Tony Kolbeck, was among those fired after the IDHS report on the outbreak. IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia also was fired.

In response to the audit in 2021, Pritzker said the IDPH was following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance not to visit a congregate facility and risk disease spread when a phone call would suffice.

Prince said that one of his major changes has been improving communication.

“I have a direct line to Gov. Pritzker if I need to call the governor for something,” he said. “I have regular conversations with the IDPH director.”

Since the outbreak, Prince said, the IDVA has made changes to prevent future outbreaks and keep residents and staff safe.

Angela Simmons, IDVA senior home administrator, said that the department has weekly infection control meetings to review daily tests that are reported to the IDPH.

In addition to increased reporting, Simmons said the department has begun including staff from the state’s five veterans homes to develop policies for how to respond to situations ranging from disease outbreaks to daily incidents.

“Our policy process right now is stronger than it ever has been,” Simmons said. “We get input from the homes.”

Since the outbreak, there also have been major staff changes at the IDPH and IDVA. Prince was appointed in April 2021, and the IDVA hired a senior home administrator and an agencywide infection specialist. It also is looking to hire a medical director this year.

Rep. Amy Elik, R-Godfrey, asked Prince if the state’s veterans homes had seen “outbreaks of other infectious diseases” since the IDVA overhauled some of its procedures that have served “as sort of a test.”

Prince said the veterans homes have seen other outbreaks with better outcomes.

“I believe in my heart of hearts that the vaccine has been one of the biggest things that has made this a much different story than back in 2020,” he said. “We are much better positioned.”

Jerry Nowicki contributed to this report.

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