SPRINGFIELD — The director of the state’s Veterans’ Affairs Department is stepping down, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Monday, capping a tenure that saw the coronavirus claim the lives of 72 veterans living in state homes.
A former Democratic state representative, Linda Chapa LaVia was tapped by Pritzker to lead the department in 2019.
The announcement of her departure follows deadly outbreaks of the coronavirus at veterans’ homes, the most severe at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home, where 36 veterans have died of COVID-19.
Another outbreak at the Quincy home has killed 17 veterans and, at the Manteno home, 19 veterans have died from the virus.
At his briefing on the coronavirus not long after the announcement, Pritzker didn’t directly address a question about whether he asked for LaVia to resign, but he did say his cabinet picks are up for reappointment soon and “it was a mutual decision that she would step down.”
“What we want to do is restore confidence that people have in our veterans’ affairs department, and we want to do our best to take care of our veterans,” Pritzker said.
The governor said he will name a permanent replacement for LaVia after a nationwide search. Until then, Major General Peter Nezamis of the Illinois National Guard will serve as interim director.
In a statement, Pritzker said “our veterans have sacrificed so much for our freedom and this administration will continue to do everything possible to prioritize their care.
“I’m grateful to Linda for her service and wish her well on her next chapter,” Pritzker said. “I’m pleased to welcome Major General Peter Nezamis to his new role and am confident that with his decades of leadership and operations experience, he is the right person to lead this department forward and ensure our veterans receive the quality care they deserve.
LaVia said it’s “been an honor and a privilege to serve our veterans.
“I’m proud of our accomplishments and I look forward to assisting the interim director in any way possible as the department continues its work to serve our heroes,” LaVia said in a statement.
Though COVID-19 vaccines have been made available to all employees at Illinois veterans’ homes, only 40% of staff members have so far opted to receive their first dose of the inoculation against the deadly virus. At the LaSalle home, only 28% of the staff opted to receive the vaccine earlier this month.
A pair of reports released in November detailed conditions at the LaSalle home, including ineffective hand sanitizer, employees showing up for work after testing positive for the coronavirus and inadequate “hand hygiene.”
Those findings from a site visit on Nov. 12 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.
A second visit five days later found many of the initial recommendations were followed, a second report found.
The reports released by the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs also found employees of the home attended the same Halloween gathering and later tested positive for the virus.
At a hearing before the Civil Judiciary Committee Monday, representatives questioned LaVia and others about the LaSalle outbreak.
State Rep. Terra Costa Howard, D-Glen Ellyn, expressed her disappointment during that hearing.
“It’s exceedingly disappointing to hear ... how awesome the staff is, and how much they care about our residents, [when] the reality of the situation is they cared so much they went to Halloween parties and they came, and openly exposed the residents of these facilities,” Costa Howard said.
“Now, they have the opportunity to be vaccinated ... and they’re not using them and getting themselves vaccinated and further making attempts to protect those veterans in those homes. It’s extremely disappointing to me and I recognize that they have an individual right to not receive that vaccine, but this is just pathetic and sad.”