Lawmakers want plan from Rauner’s cabinet on controlling deadly Legionnaires’

SHARE Lawmakers want plan from Rauner’s cabinet on controlling deadly Legionnaires’
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Dr. Nirav Shah of the Department of Illinois Health responds to questions at a hearing by the Illinois House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee as Erica Jeffries of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs looks on in Chicago Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2017. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

Lawmakers demanded Tuesday that Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration deliver a permanent plan for controlling deadly Legionnaires’ disease at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy.

Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Jeffries and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, answered tough questions during a four-hour hearing of the joint House-Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in Chicago.

It was called to examine the state’s response to the disease that contributed to the deaths of 13 facility residents since 2015 and sickened dozens more.

Shah and Jeffries defended the administration’s response to the crisis dating to Aug. 21, 2015, when Shah learned of a second confirmed case of the pneumonia-like malady caused by bacteria that grow in water systems and cause Legionnaires’ when infected water vapor is inhaled.

“Your best is not good enough, Dr. Shah, it’s atrocious,” said Democratic Sen. Cristina Castro of Elgin. “Where’s the plan? I’m tired of Band-Aids. I’m tired of excuses.”

Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican, challenged Jeffries to propose a new housing unit on the sprawling, 200-acre campus that would have state-of-the-art plumbing for a modest investment of state capital-project dollars and federal Veterans’ Administration support.

The questions covered a range of topics following a report in December that after 12 deaths in 2015, the disease returned in both 2016 and 2017, leading to another veteran’s death last fall and a lawsuit from 11 families of deceased residents.

Republican Sen. Sam McCann of Plainview demanded Shah’s resignation for failing to inform Rauner’s office until over a weekend and over a six-day delay in informing the public of the first outbreak. Shah called it an acceptable period during which experts were making sure they knew the extent of the problem.

“The most important step in a health care associated outbreak is to notify the facility, and the facility was instructed by the Illinois Department of Public Health to put in place remedial measures that turned the tide of the epidemic,” Shah said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report last week that confirmed the state’s measures — aerators on showers and sprayers, chemical treatment and heating of water, flushing of faucets — has significantly reduced the incidence of the illness.

“We’re finding more cases because we are looking for more cases,” Jeffries said.

Rauner, who was criticized for a tepid response to the crisis, took up residence at the home last Wednesday night and plans to stay until mid-week in hopes of getting a better understanding of its operations. His office announced he will speak publicly from Quincy on Wednesday morning.

Authorities have ruled out moving residents — there are 314 skilled-care residents and 35 in independent or assisted living — because moving from familiar surroundings is disruptive to the elderly, particularly those with dementia.

Jeffries said it would cost at least $25 million to replace all the plumbing, some of which is 80 or more years old. But digging up old plumbing could release Legionella bacteria in the soil or in the old pipes and cause new problems.

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