State Health Chief Calls His Email About Legionnaires’ Death ‘Insensitive’

Outside of the Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy.
Outside of the Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy. WBEZ/Andrew Gill
Outside of the Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy.
Outside of the Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy. WBEZ/Andrew Gill

State Health Chief Calls His Email About Legionnaires’ Death ‘Insensitive’

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The embattled head of Illinois’ public health agency voiced regret on Wednesday over his language in an email related to the Legionnaires’ disease death of a resident at the state-run Quincy veterans’ home.

The mea culpa from state Public Health Director Nirav Shah came the same day a pair of candidates for attorney general called for an independent investigation into the state’s response to a 2015 Legionnaires’ outbreak that killed a dozen people at the facility. One Democrat in the race raised the possibility of criminal charges against state officials.

Shah’s comments on Illinois Public Media’s The 21st followed a WBEZ report last week that revealed the contents of his internal August 2015 correspondence. It was among nearly 1,400 emails the state had been fighting to keep secret, but which WBEZ obtained from the health department in Adams County, where the home is located.

In that particular Aug. 30, 2015 email, Shah reacted to what he characterized as a “great story” in the Quincy Herald-Whig that lauded the state’s response to the blossoming Legionnaires’ outbreak underway at the time.

He said the report helped “rebut” a grief-stricken private Facebook message he’d seen a day earlier from the son of U.S. Army veteran Eugene Miller, whose positive test result for Legionnaires’ was delivered by the facility to his family four hours before his death.

The resident’s son, Tim Miller, questioned why the home didn’t notify his family that Legionnaires’ cases had been confirmed on the campus of the home when his 86-year-old father first started displaying symptoms.

“It’s been really devastating to know that our choices for my dad’s care would have been different if we knew about the legionnaires [sic],” he wrote.

Shah later forwarded the laudatory news story to officials in Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office, but there is no evidence he ever passed along Miller’s anguished note that questioned the state’s response.

On Wednesday, after he re-read his email on the radio, Shah backtracked from his original language circulated among officials in his agency and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs that appeared to suggest some form of rebuttal was necessary for the state to save face publicly.

“My particular email that you read was insensitive, and that’s not something I’m proud of, and that’s not something I should have communicated in that fashion,” Shah said.

“We are tremendously, tremendously mournful for the loss of Mr. Miller and our hearts go out to his family,” Shah said. “We certainly understand their sadness and the frustration with what’s going on here.”

But at one point during his interview Wednesday, Shah appeared to stumble on the number of Legionnaires’ deaths there were at the time Tim Miller wrote his Facebook message. Shah told The 21st no one had died at that point.

However, court documents show that by Aug. 29, 2015, the day Miller sent his Facebook message, at least three other residents had already died of Legionnaires’. Nearly three dozen people had gotten sick, according to a later report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Reached after Shah’s interview on Wednesday, Tim Miller voiced skepticism over the sincerity of the public health director’s comments.

“Given Mr. Shah’s seemingly sincere sympathy and the recognition of the inappropriateness in the timing of his comments, I would think for him to be so heavy at heart he would surely have known at least that my dad had died when the emails were sent,” Miller said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, both Democratic and Republican candidates for attorney general appeared together in a forum hosted by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. They were asked whether any of them believed a criminal investigation should be opened into state officials’ handling of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks.

Only Democrat Pat Quinn, who lost his gubernatorial re-election bid to Rauner in 2014, voiced his support for a criminal case.

“I don’t think there’s any question there was a failure to disclose the information to the families and to the workers and to the public — the long delay,” Quinn said. “There’s obviously wrongdoing and I think it has to be brought to justice.”

Another Democratic candidate, Renato Mariotti, said it would be irresponsible to talk about criminal charges before an investigation, and said Quinn’s answer shows the former governor’s “lack of experience.”

Both Republican candidates, Erika Harold and Gary Grasso, said more information is needed before they could say if criminal negligence occurred, and both called for an independent investigation. Rauner has voiced his support for Harold’s candidacy. Earlier this year, the Illinois State Senate authorized the state’s auditor general to open an investigation into the outbreaks.