Illinois First Lady Diana Rauner will be joining the governor as he takes the extraordinary step of spending “several days” at the Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy, following a WBEZ investigation into multiple outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease at the state-run facility.
“I’m interested in the well-being of all of our citizens and so it’s an exciting time to have an opportunity to meet some of these folks and learn first-hand clearly about what they’re trying to accomplish there,” Diana Rauner told WBEZ Thursday afternoon.
She said she’s “looking forward to meeting the residents and spending time with them.”
On Thursday, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office said he plans to spend “several days” at the facility, in order to “gain a more thorough understanding of the clinical, water-treatment and residential operations of the home.”
Rauner’s administration has been under fire from political opponents since WBEZ published its story last month about the deadly 2015 outbreak at the home. That outbreak killed 12 people and sickened dozens more. Despite $6.4 million of state water-treatment investments, there was another outbreak in 2016, after which Rauner visited the veterans’ home and told reporters, “We’re really on top of the situation.”
Six more people were sickened in 2017, with one resident of the home dying in October. The Adams County coroner attributed legionella as a contributing factor to the Korean War veteran’s death.
Last month, Gov. Rauner told reporters he would “absolutely” drink the water at the facility, though he refused to say whether he bears a moral responsibility for the 13 Legionnaires’-related deaths that have taken place since 2015.
Eleven families of residents who died in the 2015 outbreak have sued the state for negligence. Public health officials with the state delayed informing the public for nearly a week about the deadly 2015 outbreak despite knowing the facility was facing “the beginning of an epidemic,” according to internal emails obtained by WBEZ.
When Rauner was asked about the Legionnaires’ outbreaks this week, he told The Herald News in Joliet that claims he isn’t taking responsibility for the crisis are “so false,” and called the situation “heartbreaking.” The governor also said “these things happen,” pointing out that the legionella bacteria is prominent around the state. Water treatment experts have told WBEZ that the legionella bacteria is common in large buildings, but that it’s unusual to have repeated outbreaks at the same location.
Last month, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported a single positive test result out of 48 samples taken from water sources at the veterans’ home. Rauner’s administration has maintained that it has followed the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to combat the bacteria.
But Rauner’s office has not agreed to WBEZ’s repeated requests for an interview with the governor.
The Illinois state House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees are scheduled to hold a rare joint hearing next week into the Rauner administration’s handling of the 2015 outbreak, and why people there have continued to get sick.