This editorial appeared in the Dec. 17, 2017, edition of the The Quincy Herald-Whig:

Beyond the extensive safety measures that already have been put in place, what can be done to prevent further cases of Legionnaires' disease at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy?

That is one of the critical questions being asked after it was reported last week that families of 10 Veterans Home residents who died from the disease in 2015 have sued the state of Illinois for negligence, and an 11th lawsuit is expected to be filed.

Chicago's WBEZ Radio first reported the lawsuits Tuesday in a story that detailed multiple outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease at the Quincy facility in each of the last three years, resulting in 13 deaths and more than 60 cases of residents becoming ill from exposure to Legionella bacteria.

The families contend that those deaths and continued problems with eradicating the disease at the home were preventable. Among other things, they claim the state knew about the Legionella infections for more than a month in 2015 before making the information public.

The story has since reverberated around the state, and the finger-pointing has been predictably swift. There have been numerous calls from state and federal elected officials for further investigations and independent audits into how Illinois has managed this lingering crisis.

This is clearly a heartbreaking story that should not become a political one.

Unquestionably, the accounts of the sacrifices made by those veterans during times of war are compelling and their deaths tragic. That's why it's incumbent on health professionals to remain vigilant and intensify efforts to address ongoing issues that still confound experts.

Extraordinary steps have been taken since 2015 to address the spread of Legionella bacteria.

The Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs began an extensive rehabilitation of the Veterans Home that summer after Legionnaires' disease sickened 53 people there and led to 12 deaths. IDVA spokesman Dave MacDonna said last week the state to date has invested $6.39 million on the water system upgrades and other action to eliminate Legionella bacteria at the home.

Specifically, a chemical mixing system was installed at the Veterans Home to treat the water beyond what occurs at the city's water treatment plant, and a second level of purification occurs when the treated water is heated to 160 degrees Fahrenheit to kill bacteria.

Along with other safeguards, water is tested daily across the 210-acre campus, with those results sent to a private lab for additional analysis.

Marty Detmer of Phigenics LLC, the Warrenville company hired to help develop a water treatment program, said the treatment protocol in place in Quincy outpaces industry standards and even that of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

In fact, testing data obtained by The Herald-Whig from the IDVA through a Freedom of Information Act request show the number of positive Legionella tests have declined substantially since the new plant went online in June 2016.

Results showed no tests after September in 2016, and only four of the 853 tests conducted in 2017 through Oct. 24 indicated Legionella levels above the mark considered acceptable for high-risk populations by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

By contrast, Phigenics tested 385 samples starting Sept. 11, 2015, through the end of that year. Eighteen of those tests had Legionella levels exceeding OSHA standards.

Moreover, protocols to treat residents who display symptoms of the disease were established with the help of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when none existed before the initial outbreak.

Despite those efforts, however, five other residents were sickened during another outbreak last year after the new water treatment plant and delivery system was unveiled, and three more cases have been confirmed this fall, including Roy Dehn, an 88-year-old resident who died Oct. 12 at Blessing Hospital.

With each new case, frustration understandably mounts and demands for "doing something" intensify. It should be left to health and medical professionals to determine what future actions should be taken.

Clearly, state and veterans' officials would be wise to keep the public informed on efforts being made to ensure the future care and well-being of the nearly 400 men and women who served their country now living at the Veterans Home.


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