Response to Legionnaires at Quincy Veterans Home met with controversy

WGN News In-Depth Report

QUINCY, Ill. – Governor Bruce Rauner has been staying at Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy, Ill., for days.

To some it feels like when Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne moved into the Cabrini Green Projects. Governor Rauner is living among veterans at the state-run facility, where questions remain about a deadly outbreak.

Five hours southwest of Chicago, along the Mississippi River, sits the long-term care facility for the country’s heroes. Gov. Rauner has taken up residence there as the state of Illinois manages a crisis.

In the past three years, there have been three outbreaks of Legionnaires’ Disease and 13 residents died.

“We’re extremely worried about it and I think that if you’re not worried about this situation, you need to reevaluate what concerns you,” Jerrod Welch, Adams County Public Health Administrator, said.

The first outbreak occurred in 2015 when there were 46 confirmed cases. In 2016, five more cases. And in 2017, six confirmed cases.

“Legionnaires Disease is a bacteria. It’s a water borne bacteria and so it will grow in water and when it aerosolizes it can expose an individual through respiratory inhaling of the bacteria,” Welch said.

In August 2015, a nurse from the Quincy Veterans Home called Barbara Kiefer with an urgent message: Her 94-year-old father William Schrand was sick. Kiefer worked at the facility until 2010, so she knew the nurse.

“She said I just don’t know what’s wrong with him. He was fine for breakfast. He was sitting there getting ready to eat breakfast and she said I went back in there and she said he was kind of slumped over in his chair so we took him to his room and we put him in the bed and she said I called you immediately to see what you wanted us to do. So I obviously went there directly to see what was going on and I never spoke to my father again,” Kiefer said.

Kiefer said her father was comatose. Lab results showed William Schrand tested positive for Legionella. The symptoms are brutal.

“He would moan and scream out like he was in horrible pain. I don’t want to see this happen to anyone else’s family. It’s bad enough to watch suffering that went on with dad,” Kiefer said.

Kiefer’s father died August 30, 2015.

The state’s response to the outbreak is now under scrutiny. There was a delay in notification.

Kiefer said she learned her father was ill on August 25. At that point, the state was already taking measures to manage an outbreak at the home.

An e-mail written by the Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health Nirav Shah shows that as early as August 21, the state knew it had Legionna cases at the home. But officials would wait another six days before notifying the public. Victims’ families want answers. Eleven of them are suing the state. Ryan Schuenke represents two families.

“You can read some of these e-mail chains from the governmental offices that they knew at this point that there was I think their words were, ‘a potential epidemic coming up or going on,’ but clearly it didn’t make its way to the caregivers at the veterans’ home. That’s one of my main questions. Who knew what when?” Schuenke said.

Public Health Director Shah said he made the decision not to issue a press release.

“We get news, but then we’ve got to vet it, we’ve got to confirm it. You would have called me and said what’s going on with this? Where are they? Where did they get it from? Who’s at risk? How can people keep their friends safe? We wouldn’t have had any answers for you,” Shah said.

Erica Jeffries heads the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. She said officials did not want to cause hysteria.

“The question around this six days that was waited before there was a public release - that is actually not a long time when talk about making sure there is actually a challenge here that we need to publicize. What the Department of Public Health is very focused on is not panicking a community,” she said.

Critics say the state messed up.

“They tried to hide the information or at least not be forthcoming with the information,” State Sen. Tom Cullerton (D-Chicago) said.

“Any time there is a suspicious of an epidemic public notification is should be done in the quickest, timeliest way possible,” Sen. Dick Durbin said.

As the administration pushes back, it’s highlighting the fact the veterans were older.

“This is a vulnerable population and pneumonia is a real challenge,” Jeffries said.

Goveror Rauner told the Herald News,“With our veterans, many of them are in their late 80s and 90s (and are) vulnerable to getting sick. They don't have a strong immune system. So the reality is that there's some risk but in all facilities there's risk.”

“I could have been out there and got it. Some of the employees that got it were a lot younger than these guys that were getting it,” Keifer said. “I think there was plenty he could do ‘cause they knew it was there if they take the precautions like they do now this could have been avoided.”

Melvin Tucker, a B-17 bomber in World War II, contracted Legionnaires’ at the vet home and died in 2015. His daughter would not talk to WGN on camera but she said she wants to know why the head of the VA hasn’t called her.

“I’m very sorry and in fact I’m more sorry to hear she feels like she’s never received an apology. I wrote handwritten notes to every power of attorney of every resident who passed and made phone calls to all of them. And it hurts my heart to think she felt like nobody cared because we do care. And we did care and we will continue to care,” Jeffries said.

Governor Rauner’s decision to stay at the facility for several days has drawn mixed reviews.

After WBEZ Radio shined a spotlight on Quincy Home, the governor called the outbreak a tragedy, but he declined to say if he bears moral responsibility for the fatalities.

“l’ll tell you this. It's heartbreaking that anyone should have suffered a health challenge or be exposed to bacteria um and we are taking every step we can, every step we can to keep our veterans safe,” Rauner said.

The state has spent $6.4 million upgrading the Quincy home’s water treatment system.

“We have a complete water management plan and water treatment facility right here on the grounds. In addition to that we have daily testing,” Jeffries said.

In 2016, Governor Rauner said they were on top of the situation.

But people keep getting sick. And the Centers for Disease Control, in a report released late last week, said complete eradication of the disease may not be possible.

“In a complex water system like the one that we have here you will find it. It’s unlikely that we will eradicate Legionella. What we know is that with the measures that we have in place. We are very likely to have it controlled,” Jeffries said.

Controlled but likely not eradicated. For some – that’s not good enough.

The Chicago Sun-Times has called on the state to replace the 130-year-old home.

Quincy takes great pride in the home and it’s a big local employer.

Despite all the issues, residents and their families describe the home as a special place. Almost no one wants to see it close.

Last week, the VA invited WGN inside and introduced us to Air Force Vietnam vet Ivan Jackson, 79, a resident for 4 months. He said he loves the home.

Jackson also said he bumped into the governor.

“Last night he came and introduced himself. He said don’t get up. My parents always taught me to respect my elders,” Jackson said.

Some Democrats said they’re willing to give Rauner time solve the Quincy crisis. Others suggest a failure of leadership on his part.

According to the CDC, the latest Legionnaires death occurred last October. The nagging problem persists.

State House and Senate lawmakers are now holding hearings.

It is an election year so the issue has and will continue to be politicized.

“I recommend that he come and look at the place in the northwest side of Chicago – the veterans home there – that he cancelled the construction of,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said.

State Senator Tom Cullerton, who was in the Army, chairs the Senate Veterans Committee. He, too, is not ready to shut down the Quincy home. But he said the state must do more for the veterans there.

“They served their country and they shouldn’t have to worry about this. And they shouldn’t have to think that this is what’s gonna get ‘em in the end,” he said.

The legislative hearing is Tuesday morning. The CDC tested 48 samples taken from the home. One came back positive. The strain of the bacteria was the same type associated with the 2015 outbreak.