Gov. Rauner staying at Quincy veterans home under fire for Legionnaires’ disease

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Gov. Bruce Rauner | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

Days after returning from a holiday break, Gov. Bruce Rauner on Wednesday night quietly checked himself into the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy — a home under fire amid outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease.

The governor, his office confirmed, plans to stay for several nights, with first lady Diana Rauner joining him for the weekend as a show of support for the home’s residents.

“He plans to spend several days there with the residents and staff,” Rauner spokeswoman Rachel Bold said. “He wants to gain a more thorough understanding of the clinical, water-treatment and residential operations of the home.”

It’s perhaps ripped from the Jane Byrne playbook. Byrne, the city’s first and only female mayor, moved into a Cabrini-Green apartment in 1981, as she faced a bevy of criticism over her administration’s policy toward public housing.

Byrne spent three weeks there — and not without controversy. During an Easter celebration on her last day there, she faced hundreds of protesters. “We need jobs, not eggs,” some protesters chanted.

In December, Rauner faced a backlash over the state’s response to a Legionnaires’ outbreak, which was outlined in a WBEZ report. It has also become campaign fodder for Rauner’s many gubernatorial opponents, with the primary just weeks away.

“I believe he arrived around 9:30 p.m or 10 p.m.,” State Sen. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, said on Thursday morning.

“Obviously the word is getting out with the residents and staff,” Tracy said.

The governor, Tracy said, “wanted to show his support for the veterans home and for the safety of the residents.”

While the governor arrived late Wednesday, he did not intend to make the news public, yet. But it’s hard to hide such a high-profile guest — and local media outlets soon got word of the stay.

The confirmation led others to plan visits to the home as well. Sen. Dick Durbin plans to tour the facility and speak with reporters on Friday. And first lady Diana Rauner plans to join the governor at the home for the weekend, the governor’s office said.

Rauner has not had a public event since Dec. 20.

The home is the site where 13 residents have died from Legionnaires’ disease since July 2015. And the issue has been at the forefront for the many forces vying against Rauner in the upcoming election.

The state’s health department on Thursday released a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report report that offered further details about the latest outbreak. The report noted six confirmed cases between January and November 2017 of residents, but said the state immediately notified the CDC. After two cases in October, staff said there were inconsistent levels of disinfectant in a water main providing water to the center. The report also found temperatures conducive to the growth of the bacteria. The bacteria may live in “protracted biofilm, scale and sediment that are present in the plumbing infrastructure at the IVHQ.”

And the report notes it’s hard to completely eradicate the disease.

“Complete eradication of Legionella in any large, complex building water system may not be possible,” the report said.

“There is no safe level of Legionella in building water systems, and cases have been associated with low levels of bacteria,” the report said.

While the stay shows Rauner’s commitment to the issue, it’s also a visit to an ultra-conservative community where Rauner will have to fend off State Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, in the March primary.

In the 2016 presidential election, nearly 72 percent of Adams County voters voted for Donald Trump.

Ives called the stay “a cynical and transparent publicity stunt,” while characterizing the Rauner administration’s response as “betrayals of our veterans and the benefits they earned protecting our freedoms.”

State Sen. Tom Cullerton, chairman of the Senate’s Veteran Affairs Committee, downplayed the visit. The House and Senate plan to hold a joint hearing to address the Quincy deaths on Jan. 9.

“I don’t know exactly why he’s doing it and not really concerned that he’s doing it. My concern is to make sure that the people who live there and the veterans who served our country and live there for the rest of their lives are taken care of,” said Cullerton, D-Villa Park. “I’m not worried about the two or three days the governor decided to go down and stay there.”

The Legionnaires’ outbreaks were highlighted in a WBEZ report last month. WBEZ reported at least 53 staff and residents were sickened and 12 residents died from an outbreak in 2015; five residents tested positive in 2016, and a Korean War veteran died last fall. In addition, 11 families are suing the state for negligence.

The disease is a severe form of pneumonia and is caused by a bacterium known as Legionella. The bacteria can multiply in water systems, with most outbreaks happening in large buildings. The bacteria can grow in showers and faucets, air-conditioning units and large plumbing systems. Older people, smokers and people with weakened immune systems are especially susceptible to the disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

While Rauner has publicly said he would drink the water at the facility, it is not very common to get the disease from drinking water. According to the Centers for Disease Control, contaminated water can spread in droplets small enough for people to breathe in.

Rauner toured the Quincy facility in 2016 and said the state would carefully monitor the home’s water for bacteria.

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