On Tuesday, Nov. 24, the Illinois Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, on which I serve as Republican spokesman, held an oversight hearing on the tragic spate of COVID-19 deaths at the LaSalle Veterans Home. In less than one month, 27 veterans — over 20% of the home's 120 residents — lost their lives to this deadly disease.
The state of Illinois made a commitment to these veterans, and their families, to care for them with safety and dignity during the twilight years of their lives. We owe it to them, their families, and the people of Illinois to determine whether this tragedy could have been averted. Unfortunately, Tuesday's hearing left me with more questions than answers.
Three facts came out in Tuesday's hearing that the people of Illinois should find appalling.
First, the involvement of the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) in response to the LaSalle outbreak was too little, too late. Even though cases at the facility were skyrocketing on Nov. 1, IDPH did not make a site visit until Nov. 12. I am simply astounded that IDPH knew about a major COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home but still waited more than 10 days to conduct a site visit, examine conditions and procedures at the home, and recommend remedial action.
Second, the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs couldn't even confirm that she had personally discussed this tragedy with Gov. J.B. Pritzker. On Veterans Day alone, we lost seven veterans at this facility. Shouldn't that have been enough to warrant a direct, person-to-person conversation between our governor and the director of the Department of Veterans Affairs? This is even more infuriating, considering that in the spring of 2018, then-candidate Pritzker made the Quincy Legionnaire's outbreak a focal point of his gubernatorial campaign.
Third and finally, at least five staff at the LaSalle Veterans Home who had tested positive for COVID-19 were allowed to continue working at the facility. This completely defeats the purpose of COVID-19 testing. The governor, who has the ability to shift and activate state personnel, should have been immediately notified and personally involved in developing a solution to find alternate, non-infected staff for the home.
The Pritzker administration claims that the tragedy at LaSalle stems from the high amount of COVID-19 present in the surrounding community. This excuse fails to withstand scrutiny. Two other Illinois veterans homes, located in Quincy and Manteno, are situated in counties where COVID-19 cases are more prevalent than LaSalle. Yet those two facilities have so far managed to avoid resident deaths and keep COVID-19 infections at much lower levels.
A more likely explanation for the tragedy in LaSalle is that a safety protocol breakdown occurred. That is certainly what the IDPH site visit report — released only minutes before Tuesday's hearing — suggests. That report showed that staff at the site were failing to wear masks in congregate settings. This is especially concerning given the fact that we now know about the employees with positive COVID-19 tests who were still working.
We don't know whether prompt action could have prevented some of the tragedies at the LaSalle Veterans Home. But after Tuesday's Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, we do know two things. First, Gov. Pritzker and IDPH were not sufficiently engaged during the critical early days of the crisis at LaSalle. Second, more legislative oversight hearings for both this tragedy and other areas of the state's pandemic response are still desperately needed.