Grappling with COVID-19 outbreak at LaSalle home, state chief of veterans affairs appears before House committee

Linda Chapa LaVia, an Army veteran and director of the state’s VA department, and her chief of staff, Tony Kolbeck, appeared along with Dr. Avery Hart, who represented the department of public health, to answer questions from the committee about the virus’ spread at the LaSalle Veterans Home.

SHARE Grappling with COVID-19 outbreak at LaSalle home, state chief of veterans affairs appears before House committee
The exterior of the LaSalle Veterans’ Home

LaSalle Veterans’ Home in LaSalle, Illinois.

www2.illinois.gov

The director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs and her chief of staff faced members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday as state officials question how the coronavirus outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home started and what was done to prevent the spread of the virus that’s killed 33 veterans.

Linda Chapa LaVia, an Army veteran and director of the state’s VA department, and Tony Kolbeck, her chief of staff, appeared along with Dr. Avery Hart, who represented the state Department of Public Health, to answer questions about the spread of the virus at the LaSalle Veterans Home.

Kolbeck told the committee he has not had direct contact with the head of the state’s public health department, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, during the height of the outbreak or beyond that period.

There was also a complaint filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration because some employees at the facility worked even though they’d tested positive for the virus.

After the release of two reports detailing conditions within the home, Hart said staff have “responded to this very tragic outbreak … by closing the identified gaps in infection control practice.”

That work includes “interdisciplinary leadership rounds,” which means the acting administrator, the acting director of nursing and other top figures at the home making rounds together.

All frontline staff are also required to complete in-service training on the coronavirus, which will be a “scenario based infection control training — it’s designed specifically with best practices for COVID-19 in mind,” Hart said.

In one heated exchange, LaVia talked over one representative, arguing she’s doing the best she can with “the resources and tools I have to investigate my own department and see where we went wrong” despite elected officials in LaSalle and elsewhere advising people to not adhere to mitigations set up by Gov. J.B. Pritzker last month.

“But I also want to put something into play. … Our commander in chief Dr. Ngozi [Ezike], from day one, has been requesting people to wear their face masks, to wash their hands, to keep their distance,” LaVia said. “When you have a state’s attorney in LaSalle telling people not to adhere to mitigations in LaSalle, every one of the long-term care facilities had an outbreak, sir …”

As of last Friday, 33 residents at the home have died. Of the residents who’ve tested positive for the virus, 43 have recovered. Of the 103 staff members who’ve tested positive for the virus, 100 have recovered; no employees have died.

At a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Hearing last month, LaVia said it’s “no coincidence” that cases within the home “began to rise just as cases rose dramatically in the surrounding community.”

Pritzker and state veterans officials launched an investigation into the circumstances around the spread of the deadly virus at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home in November.

That decision followed the release of two reports that found the home had ineffective hand sanitizer, employees showing up for work after testing positive for the coronavirus and inadequate “hand hygiene.”

That hand sanitizer was “discovered” at one of the state’s other veterans affairs facilities but has since been replaced, Kolbeck said Wednesday.

Nearly two weeks later, Angela Mehlbrech, the administrator of the home located about 95 miles southwest of Chicago, was fired. Kolbeck declined to comment on why Mehlbrech was terminated, saying it’s a “personnel matter that we’re not able to speak about.”

The state’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs said in a statement the personnel change followed the announcement of an independent investigation into the outbreak at the home led by the acting inspector general of the Illinois Department of Human Services.

Acting Assistant Director Anthony Vaughn was tapped to serve as the interim administrator as the department searches for a permanent replacement.

Asked about the outbreak at the home at a briefing on the coronavirus last week, Pritzker said he bears “the responsibility of leadership of the state, and that means that everything that happens across state government to some degree or another lands on my shoulders.”

“... I think most importantly, the question is, at the time that people become aware on site of what’s happening, what are their reactions? How do they care for people there and make sure that they’re safe?” Pritzker said. “And then, what do we learn from that very importantly, to carry on elsewhere to make sure that we’re keeping all of our veterans safe.”

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