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Veterans attend an annual Veterans Day ceremony at the Veterans Memorial Waterfall in Niles, Ill., Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020.

Nam Y. Huh

Top LaSalle Veterans’ Home Administrator Fired After More than 30 COVID-19 Deaths

Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration has ousted two top officials at the state-run LaSalle Veterans Home where 32 veterans have died in an explosive COVID-19 outbreak the governor said Monday “should never have been this bad.”

LaSalle administrator Angela Mehlbrech was escorted from the facility, and her firing comes amid criticism over the possible mishandling of an outbreak where 108 residents and 97 staff members have tested positive for the virus since Nov. 1.

Mehlbrech could not immediately be reached.

Also out is Jackie Cook, the director of nursing at the home, who has been placed on administrative leave, pending results from an investigation by the Department of Human Services’ inspector general.

In announcing the shake-up, Pritzker did not outline any specific examples of malfeasance to justify the personnel moves.

But he did note that the prevalence of COVID-19 in LaSalle County, where the home is located, has been “much higher” than the statewide average and has hit three privately-run nursing homes in the county in a more lethal manner.

“This virus preys on the elderly and it looks for a carrier to bring inside a home even when significant efforts are made to follow mitigations,” Pritzker said at a news conference announcing the shake-up. “But it should never have been this bad.”

The governor went on to express empathy to the families who lost loved ones at LaSalle.

“The worst-case scenario that I’ve tried every day to prevent is now our reality in LaSalle,” Pritzker said. “To all those who have lost someone they love, I grieve with you for the time that was stolen from you. I grieve with you that the refrain of vaccines as a light at the end of the tunnel rings hollow to you because a light has already left your life.

“And I promise you I will not stop looking for ways we can do more to save lives and protect our most vulnerable Illinoisans from this pandemic,” he said.

Anthony Vaughn, who was acting assistant director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, will be elevated to interim administrator of the LaSalle Veterans’ Home, IDVA announced.

“IDVA mourns the tragedy of the veteran heroes lost to COVID-19 at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home. We will ensure that CDC and IDPH protocols are followed and full accountability occurs for any lapses in protocols,” Vaughn said in a statement. “All measures will be taken to ensure the health and well-being of the residents we serve and we will continue to support their families and loved ones during this heartbreaking period.”

Pritzker has come under fire from Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, for his response to the public-health crisis at the facility 95 miles west of Chicago.

State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, called Pritzker’s dismissal of Mehlbrech a “step toward bringing accountability to the deadliest outbreak at a state-run facility in Illinois history.”

But she called on Pritzker to reveal more information as to why exactly he fired Mehlbrech and placed Cook on leave.

“What does the governor’s office know about their conduct that we don’t?” Rezin asked.

State records show Mehlbrech was paid $94,500 annually to oversee the home that can house up to 184 veterans.

The outbreak has put Pritzker on the defensive. In 2018, he went on the attack against Republican Bruce Rauner for the “fatal mismanagement” of multiple Legionnaires’ disease deaths at the state-run Quincy veterans’ home.

Pritzker is awaiting results of an internal state investigation into how the LaSalle facility responded to the crisis and last week vowed to make changes there if evidence of malfeasance emerged.

Last month, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs observed hand sanitizer that wasn’t effective in killing the virus placed in residents’ rooms and elsewhere, labeling that misstep as something that could have had “a significant impact on the transmission of COVID-19 in the facility.”

LaSalle staff members were also observed not properly wearing masks at work, some infected residents’ room doors were left open, and multiple staffers who came to work after earlier attending an off-site Halloween party and later tested positive for COVID-19.

A WBEZ analysis of nursing home fatalities attributable to COVID-19, logged as of Nov. 6, shows there were 19 nursing home facilities across Illinois with at least 30 deaths.

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.

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