This editorial is being published together with Lee Enterprises' Illinois newspapers.
America loves its veterans, but we do a poor job continuing to care when they return from action or are taken into designated housing as they age.
The ups and downs of Veterans Affairs nursing homes around the country are well-documented. Poor care, lack of care and delays in care have been reported around the country for years. Improvements are made, more issues are found, and the cycle repeats itself. Every time issues and concerns manage to fade to the back of our minds, something else horrifying arises.
Illinois plays its role in the awfulness. A 2015 outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the Quincy veterans’ home resulted in the deaths of 13 residents. Subsequent annual outbreaks led to at least two additional deaths and dozens more patients, family and staff members being sickened. The Quincy home is essentially being rebuilt.
An audit of the aftermath of that incident criticized the Departments of Public Health and Veterans’ Affairs for delays in taking action and notifying nursing staff and the public of the outbreak.
A COVID-19 outbreak over the last two months at the LaSalle veterans’ home has already doubled the death toll from Quincy in 2015.
Through late October, only one resident and five staff members at the LaSalle home had tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs. All six recovered.
But beginning Oct. 31, an outbreak at the home infected more than 200 residents and staff members and killed at least 33 veterans. Initial federal and state inspections identified problems from lax use of personal protective equipment and poor social distancing.
COVID-19 and any type of group living situation — like a veterans’ home or a nursing home — is a potentially fatal combination. If those homes are doing what they are expected to do, testing is the vital filter to keeping people alive. Even with visitations not allowed — another great tragedy of this pandemic — workers going in and out daily have the potential, however inadvertently, to change circumstances in a minute.
The biggest difference between Quincy and LaSalle is transparency. The Quincy incidents were actively ignored and covered up by officials at the time. Meanwhile, earlier this month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker fired Angela Mehlbrech, who was the LaSalle VA home’s administrator.
Pritzker reiterated several of the issues cited in initial investigations at LaSalle. Among emails obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests was one including this from Mehlbrach:
“I would really like people to remember that we kept the virus out of here for 8 months and only when our community numbers skyrocketed did we have an outbreak.”
In other words, we did our job until we didn’t.