EDITORIAL: Guv’s grandstanding aside, veterans home in Quincy should be closed

SHARE EDITORIAL: Guv’s grandstanding aside, veterans home in Quincy should be closed
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The Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy has had outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease three consecutive years. Thirteen people have died. | Michael Kipley/Quincy Herald-Whig via AP

Gov. Bruce Rauner is grandstanding.

Moving into the Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy for a few days, like it’s an Airbnb, won’t fix its problems.

But we get it. It’s an election year. And a publicity stunt beats too little a show of concern.

The real problem is that Rauner continues to send the wrong message, that somehow the veterans home can be made safe enough. A federal report released Thursday provides further evidence for the opposite view — that the home will never be safe enough.

It’s time to close the veterans home. As we first argued last month, the threat of Legionnaires’ disease, a deadly form of pneumonia that has killed 13 people at the home in three years, is not going away for the older men and women — many of them in fragile health — who live there.

EDITORIAL

On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that “the possibility of future cases of disease associated” with the veterans home “cannot be eliminated.” This is despite rigorous steps to rid the facility’s water system of Legionella bacteria. The CDC also offered recommendations to further shrink the chances of yet another deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’.

But, as we see it, the bottom line is this: Expect another outbreak.

And who wants to live in a place like that?

In 2015, the veterans home had 46 confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease and 12 confirmed cases of Pontiac fever, which also arises from Legionella bacteria. Twelve people died from Legionnaires. The disease can develop after a person, usually someone older in age and with a vulnerable immune system, breathes in droplets of water containing Legionella bacteria that are carried through water systems.

In 2016, there were five more confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ at the home despite improved training for staff to detect and treat the disease and improvements in the water system.

Last year, between January and November, there were six more confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ despite additional improvements. One person died.

If you’re looking for proof of how hard it is to get rid of Legionella, consider that 47 of 48 samples taken from the veterans home in 2017 tested negative for the bacteria. Yet, as WBEZ reported Thursday, the strain found in a single shower head was the same kind tied to the 2015 and 2016 outbreaks. It indicated “persistence of this strain” in the water system, the CDC wrote.

The CDC also noted that officials at the veterans home had addressed previous issues with the water system, adding, “it is probable that this strain persists in protective biofilm, scale and sediment that are present in the plumbing infrastructure.”

The most obvious way, then, to minimize the risk of disease would be to replace miles of old, galvanized pipes, but that would be far too costly. Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs Director Erica Jeffries told WBEZ in a report published last month that it would probably cost more than $500 million.

As anybody who has ever owned an old beater car knows, you can take it to the mechanic only so many times before you have to accept that it has to be junked. You’re throwing good money after bad.

The original plumbing at the veteran’s home is as old as the facility itself — 131 years. Civil War veterans lived there.

Lives are in danger. There is no denying the three-year toll, or the continued threat. The time has come to replace the home with more modern and far safer amenities.

Veterans and their families deserve it.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com

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