EDITORIAL: Close veterans home where Legionnaires’ outbreaks persist
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Melvin Tucker was flying in a B-17 bomber when he was shot down over Nazi Germany in 1944. Miraculously, he survived. Taken prisoner by a Nazi soldier, he made it through 13 brutal months in a German prison camp.
Tucker died in 2015, succumbing to toxic bacteria he ingested from the water at the Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy, where he spent his final years.
Tucker’s story and the stories of other veterans who have died from Legionnaires’ disease at the state-run facility were included this past week in a report by WBEZ-FM 91.5. Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration is finding it tough, despite considerable effort, to eliminate the deadly bacteria from the facility’s water system. The state faces lawsuits from 11 families.
Veterans who risked their lives on battlefields shouldn’t die now because they breathed in toxic bacteria while taking a shower at a veterans’ home.
Close the place, Governor.
We don’t say that lightly. Almost 400 veterans and their spouses live at the home. Moving fragile, elderly patients to new facilities is a difficult and disruptive task. But nobody can feel confident anymore that the state will ever be successful in ridding the veteran’s home of the bacteria. We don’t see Rauner spending more than $500 million to replace miles of old galvanized pipes, ripe for legionella bacteria, at the 131-year-old facility.
In the last three years, 13 people have died at the Quincy facility from legionellosis, a respiratory disease caused by bacteria that is spread through water droplets in the air. Sixty-one people at the facility, including staff members, have gotten sick from the disease. The most serious cases have led to Legionnaires’ disease, a deadly type of pneumonia.
In June 2016, about a year after 12 people died from Legionnaires’ disease, Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Jeffries said the facility probably had the cleanest water in the state. Within two months, five more residents had contracted Legionnaires’ disease.
This fall, three more residents tested positive for legionellosis, including one who died. A coroner told WBEZ that the bacteria were a contributing factor in the death of Korean War veteran Roy Dehn, 88.
Since the 2015 outbreak, the state has been much more vigilant in testing and caring for patients who exhibit symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease. It also has spent more $6 million in upgrading its water treatment system, WBEZ reported. Improvements came after a 2015 CDC report said the outbreak “occurred in a setting with no formal water management plan, no legionella specific prevention plan, limited legionella testing, and limited monitoring of water treatment parameters.”
Despite steps taken by the Rauner administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a report reviewed by WBEZ that the facility’s plumbing system continues to pose a “potential risk” for legionellosis. Considering the facility’s age, “completely eradicating Legionella is very challenging,” the CDC said.
This should be a wake-up call to nursing homes and hospitals all over the state. Last year, then-CDC Director Tom Frieden said that an increase nationally in Legionnaires’ cases could be attributed to aging building water systems, aging adults who are more vulnerable to disease and improved diagnostics to identify the disease.
On its website, the veterans’ home in Quincy describes a beautiful 210-acre facility that is tailor-made to handle the everyday and long-term needs of veterans, from meals to care for Alzheimer’s.
“Rich in history and steeped in tradition, the Illinois Veterans Home at Quincy is more than just another retirement community; it is truly, the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave,'” the website says.
But if state government can’t protect the men and women who live there from toxic bacteria, it needs to find them another home.
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