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Rauner Cabinet Defends Legionnaires’ Response, Disputes Victims’ Families

The head of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs is disputing the accounts of some families now suing the state for neglect over its handling of a deadly 2015 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy.

Director Erica Jeffries’ comments came during a four-hour legislative hearing on Tuesday, called by state lawmakers looking into the state’s handling of the outbreak, which killed 12 people and sickened dozens more. Another outbreak hit the home in 2016, sickening five, and an outbreak last year contributed to another Legionnaires’-related death, according to the Adams County coroner.

The rare joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees came after WBEZ reported on the some of the victims’ families who are claiming, in part, that they weren’t informed of the Legionnaires’ outbreak in time to save their loved ones.

Eleven families are now suing the state for neglect in the Illinois Court of Claims, but the state has denied acting negligently.

On Tuesday, members of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s cabinet took questions from lawmakers about their handling of the the Legionnaires’ cases. Following a WBEZ report that showed state health officials waited nearly a week to publicize the initial outbreak in 2015, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Nirav Shah defended the move.

“In this instance, senator, we did this one by the book and I stand by our response,” Shah said in response to a question of whether he would’ve changed any of his agency’s handling of the 2015 outbreak. Shah added that he is confident enough in conditions at the home to put his own father there.

Jeffries, who oversees the veterans’ agency, cast doubt in her testimony on some of the families’ versions of their loved ones’ deaths.

“These folks are wonderful people but they have very acute health conditions. Part of what was reported in the news was that these people were pictures of health and that’s just not so,” Jeffries testified.

In the initial WBEZ story last month, the family of Gerald Kuhn, a World War II veteran who was a resident of the home, recalled him as being “a picture of health” until he died from the legionella bacteria in 2015.

Jeffries also disputed the circumstances surrounding the death of 79-year-old Dolores French. French’s son, Steve, said in an interview with WBEZ that he learned of the 2015 outbreak through news reports. When he called the veterans’ home to check on his mom, he was told she was OK.

But it wasn’t until the next morning that he was notified by the home that his mother’s neighbors had reported her missing, and staff wanted permission to enter her room, he said. Later, Steve French’s wife, Deann, took a call from the Adams County coroner who informed her that Dolores had been found dead in her room at the veterans’ home and that “she has been dead for a significant amount of time,” Deann recalled in an interview last month. The family reiterated that claim in their lawsuit against the state.

But Jeffries testified otherwise Tuesday.

She said her department has documentation that a nurse went into Dolores French’s room and found it to be empty, after her neighbors had said they hadn’t seen her. That was also the same day Steve French called to check on his mom, Jeffries said.

“We do not have record of her ever reporting any signs of illness, and therefore, we didn’t have any reason to have concern about whether or not she was sick somewhere else or lost,” Jeffries testified.

A spokesman for Jeffries’ department did not immediately respond to a request for the documentation she mentioned.

When asked about the French case during an extensive interview last month, Jeffries told WBEZ, “Mr. French’s story is Mr. French’s story.” When asked then if she had reason to doubt its veracity, Jeffries didn’t answer, saying she didn’t have details about the case.

Told about Jeffries’ testimony after Tuesday’s hearing, Steve French said in a statement to WBEZ: “Ms. Jeffries’ story is Ms. Jeffries’ story. We are not at all unclear about what was untold to us about the Quincy VA facility and the Adams County coroner regarding my mother’s death. We look forward to this process bringing the truth to light.”

Also at the legislative hearing, some lawmakers expressed support for funding the construction of a new facility on the campus to replace a building that has had some of the most positive detections of the Legionella bacteria, while other legislators questioned what it would take to replace all the water pipes on the grounds of the facility.

The bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, a sometimes-deadly form of pneumonia, lives in water systems. Last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report saying it might be impossible ever to eradicate the risk of the disease at the 132-year-old Quincy veterans’ home.

“If one more person dies, are we gonna say, ‘OK, well we’ll give it another week and then if someone else dies then maybe we’ll figure something else out’? When is enough enough?” Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park, asked Tuesday.

“After the first one, enough was enough,” Jeffries responded. She said even if there’s a new building or new plumbing, that still may not solve the problem.

Legislators plan to hold more hearings into the matter.

Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has spent the last week staying at the veterans’ home. He’s expected to address reporters from the home Wednesday.

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