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Drink water at vets’ home linked to deaths? ‘Absolutely,’ Rauner says

Talking to reporters on Wednesday, Gov. Bruce Rauner defended his administration's response to a deadly outbreak of Legionnaire's disease at a state veterans' home. | Tina Sfondeles/Sun-Times

Gov. Bruce Rauner on Wednesday defended his administration’s response to a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at a state veterans’ home, saying he’d “absolutely” drink the water there.

“Absolutely, absolutely,” Rauner said when asked by a reporter about drinking the tap water at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy, where 13 residents have died from Legionnaires’ disease since July 2015.

The outbreaks were highlighted in a WBEZ report last week. WBEZ reported at least 53 staff and residents were sickened and 12 residents died from an outbreak in 2015; five residents tested positive in 2016; and a Korean War veteran died this fall, one of three cases which hit the home. In addition, 11 families are suing the state for negligence.

The disease is a severe form of pneumonia and is caused by a bacterium known as Legionella. The bacteria can multiply in water systems, with most outbreaks happening in large buildings. Older people, smokers and people with weakened immune systems are especially susceptible to the disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Rauner toured the Quincy facility in 2016 and said the state would carefully monitor the home’s water for bacteria.

“The fact is in Illinois, Legionella bacteria are common in the water supplies throughout the state, and it’s something we need to stay vigilant about,” Rauner said on Wednesday after signing a bill that will lower the state’s LLC fees. “We are aware of it in the Quincy veterans home because of an outbreak and now we test constantly.”

Contractors are shown in assembling pipes to flush out a fire hydrant beneath the water tower at the state veterans home in Quincy, Ill. The home’s drinking water system was disinfected with chlorine to help fight a Legionnaire’s disease outbreak. | Alan Scher Zagier/Associated Press

The governor said the state is taking “aggressive action” to keep veterans safe. While some are calling for Rauner to shut the facility down, the governor said medical experts have advised against doing that.

“Every medical expert that we have talked with about the Quincy veterans home situation and brought in have said it would be a mistake to shut the facility,” Rauner said. “It would be a mistake to move those veterans. They are frail. They are very elderly. That is their home. And Legionella bacteria are throughout the state of Illinois and what we can’t do is put them at greater risk,” Rauner said, citing exposure to weather, “other individuals,” and movement to lower quality health care facilities.

“Their risks of infection and possible death goes up if they are forced to move out,” Rauner said.

Rauner, too, was asked twice whether he should bear any moral responsibility for the deaths.

“I’ll tell you this. It’s heartbreaking that anyone should suffer a health challenge or be exposed to a bacteria,” Rauner said. “And we are taking every step we can to keep our veterans safe and reviewing every option and being as aggressive as possible with every expert from around the nation.”

The House and Senate committees on veterans affairs plan to hold a joint hearing to address the Quincy deaths on Jan. 9 in Chicago. State Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, who serves as chairman of the Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee, on Tuesday toured the downstate Illinois veterans facility.