Rockford, Illinois News

State senator raises more questions about virus outbreak at LaSalle Veterans’ Home

MORRIS, Ill. — Of more than 2,000 pages of documents turned over to a state senator, only a handful dealt with last year’s deadly COVID-19 outbreak at LaSalle Veterans’ Home taking 36 lives.

State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, requested 30 days’ worth of documents from the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs for when the COVID-19 outbreak began at the LaSalle home in early November.

Her staff took a week to go through more than 2,000 pages.

One email from the home’s administrator on Nov. 2 acknowledged an outbreak.

“Sam, we have an outbreak at the facility,” former administrator Angela Mehlbrech said in a Nov. 2 email to an official from the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. “Currently testing and I will get back to you today when I know more, but this time it is affecting residents and staff.”

“Please let me know if you need staffing assistance,” U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs Health System Specials Samantha Tepper said in a Nov. 9 email. “We will probably also need to know what type of staff you need. Do you need any assistance with Infection Control?”

“We are working through our staffing issues,” Mehlbrech responded. “At this point I am not requesting additional staff.”

Mehlbrech was fired a little more than a month later.

Another email thread released by Rezin’s records request showed frustrations growing from state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego.

“I am very concerned about the situation in the LaSalle Home,” Kifowit said in an email on Nov. 16. “I have gotten numerous emails of mismanagement from staff and family. This is a glaring example of mismanagement by the Administrator.”

Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Linda Chapa LaVia resigned in January.

There are still unknowns despite the 2,300-page release, Rezin said.

“What surprised me was that there was just not more emails sent to us showing some kind of communications between all of the different departments who ultimately waited ten days before they did an onsite visit,” Rezin said. “The list of documents we were sent in this [Freedom of Information Act request] does not explain what happened between Nov. 2 and Nov. 12 when the on-site visit happened.”

There was a site visit by the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs detailed in a report released just before a legislative hearing on the issue in late November. That report found a variety of issues, including ineffective hand sanitizer and lax employee controls to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Additional hearings delved into other issues surrounding the outbreak.

Rezin said she’ll be demanding more documents from the Pritzker administration using the Freedom of Information Act, especially since only a few communications about the outbreak have been released to date.

“This is the deadliest outbreak at a state facility in Illinois history and there are only two emails of correspondence going back and forth shows me there was a lack of communication between all of these departments,” Rezin said.

Rezin is also pushing for an audit of the situation.

While there have been shakeups at the home and at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Pritzker administration hasn’t elaborated beyond the issue being investigated by an inspector general. It’s unclear when any findings from that investigation will be released.