Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration insisted on Monday that it did everything within its means to control fatal Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at the Quincy veterans’ home and opened the door to undiagnosed cases more than a decade ago.
A 32-page report issued by Rauner’s office, among other things, took issue with “misconceptions” about the six-day delay in disclosing to the public details about a known Legionnaires’ “epidemic” at the home in 2015.
The report went on to say publicly disclosed details about the Legionnaires-related deaths of three residents from their families were incomplete and, for the first time, raised the possibility of previously undisclosed Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the veterans home in 2006 and 2008.
“We wanted to put this out there to set the record straight and hopefully blunt some of the false narrative that has appeared and started in recent months,” said Michael Hoffman, a Rauner special adviser who has become the point person for the ongoing Quincy public-health crisis.
The new report was in response to a vote last month by the Illinois House on legislation that compelled Rauner’s administration to submit a detailed outline about what steps were taken to respond to Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the Quincy home in 2015, 2016, and 2017 and what its plan is moving forward.
A co-sponsor of the House resolution said the administration’s responses aren’t likely to put the Quincy Legionnaires’ issue to rest.
“It’s damage control for a failed situation,” said Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, an Aurora Democrat and member of a joint legislative committee investigating the outbreaks.
The administration’s inability to stop residents from getting sick and dying at the Quincy home after spending millions of dollars on water-system upgrades in 2015 and 2016 has dogged Rauner’s re-election bid this year.
The campaign of his Democratic opponent, J.B. Pritzker, ripped the latest Quincy report, arguing it showcases an administration unwilling to accept blame for missteps that cost veterans their lives. Pritzker’s camp also condemned Rauner’s office for withholding internal emails about the outbreaks sought by legislators and heavily redacting those it has chosen to release.
“Bruce Rauner’s administration is continuing to defend his fatal mismanagement of the Quincy Veterans’ Home while stonewalling legislators investigating the Legionnaires’ crisis,” the campaign said in a prepared statement.
Rauner’s administration picked apart the wording in the House resolution, pointing out sections that necessitated “correction and clarification.”
The report took issue with descriptions of facts surrounding the deaths of home residents Melvin Tucker, Gerald Kuhn and Delores French. Their survivors along with eight other families of Legionnaires’ victims are suing the state for negligence, but any damage awards are capped at a miniscule $100,000 by state law.
“While their deaths are tragic, the description in the resolution, based on pending litigation, is not complete and does not include the factual history of each case in its entirety,” the report said.
Despite that claim from the administration, Quincy lawyer Ryan Schuenke, who represents the Kuhn and Tucker families, said the language in the House resolution accurately depicted what happened to his clients.
The state cited federal health-care privacy regulations for not being able to disclose additional medical and treatment history about each victim that would “provide the needed clarification.”
The administration also argued that it took quick action to safeguard residents and staff once it became known two confirmed Legionnaires’ cases existed on the Quincy campus on Aug. 21, 2015. One nationally recognized infectious-disease expert told WBEZ that it was “mind-boggling” that it took the state six days before alerting the public about the Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the home then.
But the report said state public health officials were only obligated to notify the facility, which led to a series of precautions like restricting exposure to water vapors that can carry the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’. The governor’s office said many of those who got sick after Aug. 21 likely came into contact that bacteria earlier.
“Simply stated, the majority of residents that contracted Legionnaires’ disease in mid-August 2015 were exposed to the bacteria days before the outbreak was known,” the report said.
Rauner’s administration also pointed to the possibility that Legionnaires’ disease had sickened other residents in the home prior to 2015. There were no confirmed cases then, but there were spikes in pneumonia in 2006 or 2008.
“Because the symptoms of different pneumonias are largely identical, regardless of cause, and Legionnaires’ disease is under-diagnosed, there is a possibility that some prior ‘pneumonia’ cases were actually Legionnaires’ disease cases,” the report stated.
Hoffman told WBEZ there is no way to confirm that suspicion, however, because testing for the disease was not done then.
Dave McKinney covers state politics for WBEZ. You can follow him at @davemckinney.