The words drew gasps, briefly consuming all the oxygen in the room.
“You, sir, disgust me.”
Sen. Sam McCann angered, at the handling of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the Quincy veterans’ home, aimed the verbal buckshot at Illinois Department of Public Health Chief Nirav Shah.
“You are entitled to that opinion, senator,” Shah said.
The altercation took place Monday at the Bilandic Building downtown during a hearing before state legislators who heard testimony about the state’s response to the outbreak.
Prior to the heated exchange, McCann complained that employees at the veterans home learned of the outbreak from news reports. He also questioned Shah’s moral character.
Shah defended his actions, claiming he followed — “to the letter” — a protocol put in place by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Our response was quick, it was coordinated and it ultimately turned the tide on the outbreak. And for those reasons, I stand by it,” Shah said.
“Four new cases…I don’t call that the tide being turned,” McCann said, referring to four new cases of the disease discovered at the Quincy home this year.
The outbreak began in 2015, 13 people have died and dozens more got sick, ultimately developing a form of pneumonia.
Shah on Monday detailed measures the state has put in place, including water filters, that have dramatically reduced the risk of contraction.
It’s worth noting that McCann, a Republican from Plainview — which is southwest of Springfield — is no fan of Gov. Bruce Rauner and is not running for re-election.
He echoed a previous call for Shah to resign. If he refuses, Rauner should fire him, McCann said.
Shah conceded that his department should have shared what they knew with legislators sooner.
“I think one of the things that we know now that we are taking steps to improve upon is working and communicating with partners such as the senate veterans committee when an outbreak situation involves a facility that comes under the purview of that committee,” he said.
Illinois Veterans Affairs Director Erica Jeffries said groups tasked with formulating a plan on how to move forward will have a first draft completed by March 31 and will hand a final draft to the general assembly no later than May 1.
The reports will detail plans to demolish buildings on the Quincy site and build state-of-the-art facilities that will feature plumbing that is untainted by the legionella bacteria, which caused the outbreak.
Originally, the Rauner administration said they would just replace the antiquated plumbing.
“It’s only taken us three years to get here,” State Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, told Jeffries. “Three years, 13 lives, countless people sick.”
“We can’t wait till May. How many more people are going to get sick? We need to solve this problem now and Director Jeffries and Director Shah, I just don’t feel that there’s a sense of urgency to get this done,” Castro said.
As Jeffries and Shah exited the meeting Monday, the two repeatedly deflected questions from the Sun-Times and WBEZ reporter Dave McKinney.
They both suggested inquiries be directed to a spokesperson, who stood inches away.
When asked why two heads of state agencies couldn’t speak for themselves, Jeffries responded bluntly.
“Generally I prefer to speak with journalists who have journalistic integrity,” she said.
“And to whom are you referring,” asked McKinney, who’s broken much of the news related to the outbreak.
Jeffries remained silent and walked away.