Illinois’ two Democratic U.S. senators called on the state’s embattled public health director to resign Monday over a “botched response” to a 2015 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that killed 12 residents of the Quincy veterans’ home.
The demand by U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth was for that state Public Health Director Nirav Shah to step down from his post of nearly four years. It came the same day that WBEZ obtained a criminal subpoena to Shah’s agency from Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who has opened a Quincy investigation.
The subpoena issued nearly two weeks ago by an Adams County grand jury represents the surest sign yet of movement in Madigan’s investigation. It came to WBEZ late Monday afternoon through an open-records request to the public health department.
The subpoena sought a sweeping array of public health records about Legionnaires’ cases at the Illinois Veterans Home, where nearly 70 residents and staff have been sickened since 2015, with 14 deaths linked to the illness.
The query for records also sought information about, among other things, agency procedures for providing notice about Legionnaires’ at the facility and any communications by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration and officials in other locales that have experienced big Legionnaires’ outbreaks, including Flint, Mich.
There is no evidence that Shah or anyone in his agency is being targeted specifically by Madigan’s probe. A spokeswoman for the attorney general declined to comment on the first known subpoena issued as part of her investigation.
Monday’s disclosure came not long after Durbin and Duckworth weighed in on multiple stories by WBEZ over the weekend. The reporting focused on how Rauner’s press team seemed to overrule agency directors who pushed to inform the public about Legionnaires’ at the facility, and how a bungled water-system repair might have contributed to the 2015 outbreak.
On Saturday, WBEZ reported on an email exchange between Shah and an engineer within his agency about how the errant discharge of up to 1,600 gallons of possibly contaminated water into the Illinois Veterans Home water supply merited state sanctions. But Shah’s department chose not to cite the facility or Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which oversees the home.
An engineer at the home did not properly drain a hot-water tank while doing valve repair. Water had been contained in the unheated unit for more than 30 days and likely reached temperatures of no more than 90 degrees, a level in which Legionella bacteria can still flourish, state records show.
Once veterans’ home staff completed repairs, they opened the valve, and the water — which Shah characterized as a “broth of legionella” — was released into the home’s potable water supply, state records show.
In the joint statement, Durbin and Duckworth said the Rauner administration and Shah personally decided in 2015 to “sit on their hands as veterans and staff at the home fell victim to these deadly bacteria.”
“It’s an outrage that time after time, the governor and his team prioritized public relations over protecting vulnerable veterans, their spouses, and staff at IVH Quincy,” the senators said in a statement, referring to the state-run veterans home about 300 miles southwest of Chicago. “Director Shah’s response to this tragedy reflects the height of irresponsibility and negligence, and it’s time for him to go.”
A spokeswoman for Shah did not immediately respond to a WBEZ query for comment Monday afternoon. When WBEZ first reported on the plumbing mistake over the weekend, Shah spokeswoman Melaney Arnold told WBEZ her department decided against citing the veterans’ home because the issue had already been fixed.
“At that time, the home had stopped using hot water and was on water restrictions so the problem had been corrected,” Arnold emailed WBEZ Saturday. “Additionally, IDPH was not there when the situation occurred and did not witness what had happened.”
Shah was appointed public health director by Rauner in January 2015 and had served earlier as chief economist for the Cambodia Ministry of Health. He also served as an epidemiologist at the ministry, according to his biographical profile on the state public health website.
Since legislative hearings about the Quincy Legionnaires’ outbreaks began last January, Shah and former state Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Jeffries were the faces of the Rauner administration as it went about defending its inability to contain Legionnaires’ at the facility.
Several Democratic lawmakers sought Shah’s resignation last spring, but he enjoyed Rauner’s confidence and fended off those calls for his departure. Jeffries resigned in May.
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold report on state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow them @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.