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State launches investigation into coronavirus outbreak at LaSalle Veterans’ Home, where 27 died of COVID-19

The reports released by the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs found employees of the home attended the same Halloween gathering and later tested positive for the virus. The veterans’ home was also stocked earlier this month with hand sanitizer found not to be effective against COVID-19.

LaSalle Veterans’ Home in LaSalle, Illinois.
LaSalle Veterans’ Home in LaSalle, Illinois.
www2.illinois.gov

Ineffective hand sanitizer, employees showing up for work after testing positive for the coronavirus and inadequate “hand hygiene” are all under scrutiny as possible sources of a COVID-19 outbreak that has left 27 residents of an Illinois veterans’ home dead.

Those findings from a pair of reports prompted Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state veterans officials to launch an investigation into the circumstances around the spread of the deadly virus at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home.

The reports released by the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs found employees of the home attended the same Halloween gathering and later tested positive for the virus.

The veterans’ home in LaSalle was also stocked earlier this month with hand sanitizer found not to be effective against COVID-19, and some staff were observed touching patients and surfaces without changing their gloves or performing “hand hygiene,” according to one report released Tuesday.

Those were just some of the findings from one site visit on Nov. 12 — a second visit five days later found many of the initial recommendations were followed, a second report found.

But cases at the home some 95 miles southwest of Chicago have ballooned over the course of the month, and 27 residents have died, a spokeswoman for the veterans’ affairs department said.

Veterans’ affairs officials and Pritzker have asked the acting inspector general from the Illinois Department of Human Services to conduct an independent investigation of the circumstances around outbreak.

At a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Hearing Tuesday afternoon, Linda Chapa LaVia, an army veteran and director of the state’s VA department, said it’s “no coincidence” that cases within the home “began to rise just as cases rose dramatically in the surrounding community.”

LaVia said she did not personally speak to Pritzker about the ongoing outbreak but he “was aware of what was going on.”

Linda Chapa LaVia, then director the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, in November.
Linda Chapa LaVia, director the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, speaks at the ribbon cutting of the new Chicago Veterans’ Home on the Northwest Side earlier this month.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

LaVia did not say whether or not the governor knew that some employees who tested positive for the virus were still showing up to work at the facility. Those employees who did continue to work were in the COVID unit, said Dr. Avery Hart, of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

LaVia said the department does have a contract to get more employees into the facility, but the prospective workers did not respond when called.

Since the start of the pandemic, 105 residents of the LaSalle Veterans’ Home and 100 staff members have tested positive for the virus. Of those residents, 40 are currently positive, 38 have recovered, and 27 have died, according to the department.

Of the staff members who tested positive, 24 are still positive, and 76 have recovered. No staff deaths have been reported.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker conducts a virtual daily briefing on COVID-19 on Monday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker conducts a virtual daily briefing on COVID-19 on Monday.
BlueRoomStream

At his daily coronavirus briefing Monday, Pritzker said the state has had “very strong controls” in place not just in veterans’ homes but at all of the state’s long-term care facilities.

“That’s one of the reasons that we’ve been able to keep infections relatively low throughout the summer, and even as a percentage of the current infections, is because of those mitigations and those efforts to, to keep the virus, out of facilities,” Pritzker said.

“You can’t do that 100%, and the fact is that even though we are testing, very regularly, the staff in facilities and then testing everybody in a facility, if there is even the smallest outbreak ... the fact is that when there is massive widespread community spread, there’s just no way to keep it out of every facility.”