April 21, 2024

Eye On Illinois: Looking forward after hearing on 2020 vets’ home COVID outbreak

Read it for yourself.

Above all else, that is my recommendation for how to react to the Auditor General’s performance audit of the state’s response to a November 2020 COVID-19 outbreak at the Veterans Home in La Salle: read it for yourself.

Those sentences opened my column on May 7, 2022, just two days after Frank Mautino’s office released the 154-page document (tinyurl.com/VetHomeAudit). Even if you could only muster one page every five days you’d still have finished in time for Wednesday’s Legislative Audit Commission hearing at the Statehouse.

This isn’t to suggest no one did anything for the past 98 weeks, nor is it fair to say the hearing was only useful as a retrospective. Perhaps the most useful bit of forward-looking information, according to a Capitol News Illinois report on the hearing, was the Department of Veterans Affairs director projecting a hiring boom for his agency.

“The need for long-term care will explode over the next 20 years,” Terry Prince said, suggesting that population could increase by between 200% and 500% in those two decades.

Other legislative subgroups are more suited to address that concern, but Prince’s prediction is newsworthy regardless. Private sector long-term care providers are no doubt aware of the actuarial trends, and the state is attempting to at least keep pace. Prince said DVA has struggled with staffing despite a benefits package “nearly $40,000 higher than the civilian equivalent” and has let its resident population drop to keep sustainable staffing ratios.

As for the COVID-19 outbreak flashback, the commission hearing reminded observers of the interagency finger pointing that exacerbated an already difficult situation.

According to the audit, testing identified 203 total positive cases by the end of November, and “between Oct. 23, 2020, and Dec. 9, 2020, 109 of the home’s 128 residents (85%) and 88 of the home’s 231 staff (38%) had tested positive.” Between Nov. 7 and Jan. 1, 36 residents died.

The Department of Human Services’ inspector general’s 2021 report on the outbreak faulted the DVA’s response, but Mautino’s office found that report “flawed” since it relied on interviews and not paper trails.

CNI said Scott Wahlbrink, from the auditor general’s office, reported the state health department wasn’t responsive although DVA was reporting “on almost a daily basis.” That was during a time when federal guidelines advised against site visits to mitigate viral spread. Conditions are different in 2024, and so is personnel after firings and replacements.

Prince said he has a direct line to the governor and regular chats with the IDPH director. Angela Simmons, senior home administrator, said the agency’s policy process is stronger than ever.

As long-term care populations skyrocket, so may risk of devastating outbreaks. Proactive preparation is vital.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

Scott Holland

Scott T. Holland

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.