Republican U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger is demanding answers from Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker for not accepting federal help for weeks as a fatal COVID-19 outbreak exploded at the state-run LaSalle Veterans’ Home.
A top infectious-disease expert from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs this week has been deployed for a four- to six-week stint visiting the four state-run veterans’ homes to improve infection-control protocols.
But the outbreak at LaSalle was first disclosed by the state on Nov. 1. And deaths of residents grew by 10 times, from three on Nov. 9 to 30 as of Wednesday. That death toll represents about 17% of the roughly 175 residents at the facility.
Aides to Kinzinger were briefed by the top federal veterans official in the Midwest on Nov. 19 and told that her agency, at that time, had “an offer on the table right now” to the state to send infectious-disease experts to LaSalle for multiple weeks.
In an interview with WBEZ, Kinzinger said he is perplexed why Pritzker’s administration did not accept such an offer on the spot and that the governor must answer for that weeks-long delay.
“When you have a leadership of the state and for a month denies federal help, that ends somewhere. The buck stops somewhere. And if it’s not the governor, the governor needs to say who it does stop with, and there has to be accountability,” said Kinzinger, whose congressional district includes the state veterans’ home.
But Pritzker’s office disputed Kinzinger’s claims and said the state has accepted federal help as well as launched an inquiry into what happened at LaSalle.
Kinzinger, of Channahon, is a five-term congressman and Air Force veteran and best known, of late, for challenging President Trump’s frequent lies about voter fraud in the November elections. In some political circles, Kinzinger is regarded as a potential future statewide candidate for the GOP.
He is the highest profile Republican to challenge the Pritzker administration’s handling of the LaSalle public health crisis. The outbreak has put the Democratic governor on the defensive after winning his own 2016 gubernatorial election, in part, by criticizing the “fatal mismanagement” by Republican Bruce Rauner of multiple, fatal Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at the state-run Quincy veterans’ home.
Pritzker has launched an internal state investigation into the ongoing LaSalle calamity by the state Department of Human Services inspector general’s office and, this week, promised consequences if there are findings of malfeasance.
“If there’s any failure of procedure or wrongdoing, then that should be brought to the forefront, and people should be held accountable,” Pritzker said at his daily COVID-19 briefing.
At the LaSalle facility, 108 residents and 97 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 since Nov. 1, the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs reported Wednesday.
A WBEZ analysis of nursing home fatalities attributable to COVID-19, logged as of Nov. 6, shows there were 19 nursing home facilities across Illinois with at least 30 deaths as of Nov. 6.
An infectious-disease expert, Dr. Amelia Bumsted, based at the federal Hines Veterans’ Affairs Hospital near Broadview, visited the LaSalle facility on Nov. 13 and was the author of a report Pritzker’s administration released on Nov. 24.
During her visit to LaSalle, Bumsted observed ineffective hand sanitizer placed in residents’ rooms and elsewhere in the home, which she said could have had “a significant impact on the transmission of COVID-19 in the facility.”
Bumsted also documented LaSalle staff members not properly wearing masks at work, some infected residents’ room doors were left open, and multiple staffers who had earlier attended an off-site Halloween party and later tested positive for COVID-19.
Bumsted would not answer questions from WBEZ, referring them instead to a spokeswoman for her federal agency. That spokeswoman, in turn, referred questions about LaSalle back to the state.
A Pritzker spokeswoman said Kinzinger’s assertion that the state did not readily welcome federal help when it was offered is wrong.
“It is unclear what federal help Congressman Kinzinger is referring to,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said.
She noted that on Nov. 5, the state accepted a federal offer for personal protective equipment at LaSalle and other state veterans homes.
And on Nov. 9, the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs responded favorably to the federal offer to send Bumsted to LaSalle for her daylong visit Nov. 13 that was the basis for her report the governor later released.
And now, Bumsted is consulting with the state for four to six weeks about its veterans’ homes’ “infection control protocols and practices,” Abudayyeh said.
“As soon as the offer was presented by USVA to IDVA on Nov. 19, IDVA said that day they were interested in additional help and began discussions regarding the scope of work and began the process to formalize the request for an intergovernmental agreement,” she said. “Conversations between the USVA and IDPH doctors took place as the intergovernmental agreement was put together and was formally submitted to USVA on Nov. 27.”
Kinzinger, however, said the infectious-disease expertise of the federal government was not truly being put into full force at the home until just this week, and the results have been fatal.
“When you look at something like COVID, the fact that there would be COVID in the home in and of itself is not an outrage,” he said. “It’s the fact that you know it takes a month to really fully come to grips with what’s going on and to take the federal government’s help.
“There’s a lot of, frankly, heroes that not only had to live an isolated life during COVID, which is the case in all nursing homes, but now unfortunately have lost their lives,” Kinzinger said. “To see this thing rolling around as it did for a month and the casualties that mounted as a result of it is really sad.”
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold. WBEZ criminal justice reporter Chip Mitchell, who has studied COVID-19 fatalities at Illinois nursing homes, contributed to this report.