Durbin changes tune on calls to close vet home, state’s response time questioned

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Sen. Dick Durbin D-Ill. / Rich Hein/Sun-Times

As Gov. Bruce Rauner continues to take residence inside a Quincy veterans home, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Friday took a step back from earlier calls to have the state close the home where 13 have died from Legionnaire’s disease since 2015.

In December, following a WBEZ report which highlighted the outbreaks, Durbin called for closing the facility, while also citing a “series of unacceptable errors” by the governor and his administration. That included not publicly disclosing the 2015 outbreak in a timely manner and not engaging with public heath agencies and experts sooner, Durbin claimed.

Rauner, at the time, told reporters he didn’t believe closing the facility was a good idea, in part citing the dangers of moving veterans, many of whom have compromised immune systems.

The governor took residence in the home on Wednesday night, and plans to stay there until “mid-next week.” First Lady Diana Rauner plans to join the governor at the home for the weekend.

In a statement, the governor said he’s thus far spent his time attending a town hall and “on campus eating, sleeping and visiting with our residents, learning about the culture of the Quincy Veterans home.” He also said he has been getting a look at the admissions process, joined the doctor and nurse practitioners on rounds and has reviewed the water management plan.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has his blood pressure checked at the veterans home in Quincy. | Facebook

Gov. Bruce Rauner has his blood pressure checked at the veterans home in Quincy. | Facebook

Durbin toured the facility on Friday and met with both the governor and the state’s veterans affairs director. He told reporters the stay shows Rauner’s commitment to fixing the problem, while also urging him to “come up with a new plan,” so that he could help fund it on the federal level.And he backed off on calls to close the home.

“In terms of closing the home, I don’t believe that is necessary as long as we have a plan to move forward to make it even safer. At the time that I made the statement, there was no plan in place, no suggestion of a plan,” Durbin said. “My conversation with the governor this morning, he told me he was personally committed to make sure we did everything we could and I told him I would stand by him.”

But Durbin still questioned the state’s notification process in 2015, in which the state released a public news release on Aug. 27, 2015 and disclosed eight confirmed cases, even though the state had known since six days before that it was dealing with a public health emergency.

In a conference call Friday morning, Nirav Shah, the state’s director of the Dept. of Public Health, said the state waited to notify the public until they could get their “facts straight.” Shah said officials “jumped on the situation almost immediately on Friday, August 21” after a second case was confirmed and issued “defensive recommendations” to put in place immediately to reduce the risk. The state also conducted testing, he said.

“That process, especially, with the slow growing bacteria like Legionella does take time. We determined that the risk here of going out too early and providing misinformation could cause panic or dilute our voice later,” Shah said. “When we had all of the ducks in a row and could answer the questions we needed – who is at risk, where are they getting infected from and what can be done to keep people safe, we went forward with a press release.”

Durbin, however urged an immediate public notification, even if there is a “suspicion” of an epidemic.

“If you are facing an ‘epidemic,’ I think early, early notification is essential so that people are on guard. Keep in mind it wasn’t just the veterans who were infected. There were staff members infected too. So, we want to make sure that people know as quickly as possible,” Durbin said. “I would say that anytime there is a suspicion of an epidemic, public notification should be done in the quickest, timeliest way possible as soon as you have verification that there is a threat.”

The governor’s office declined to comment on whether he stands by its directors who dealt with the epidemic.

“I’m going to let the governor speak for himself…when he’s ready to talk about that,” Rauner spokeswoman Patty Schuh said.

The governor in a statement said he’d “report more fully on this incredible experience,” after his stay concludes next week.

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