Lawmakers seek additional hearings into LaSalle Veterans’ Home outbreak
Rep. Randy Frese, R-Paloma, was one of three GOP House members who called for additional hearings into the coronavirus outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home during a virtual news conference Monday. (Credit: blueroomstream.com)
At least 28 residents have died of COVID-19 related illnesses at the facility
By SARAH MANSUR
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — Republican lawmakers on Monday renewed calls for a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing into the cause of a coronavirus outbreak at the state-run veterans home in LaSalle where about 20 percent of the residents have died of COVID-19 related illnesses.
Reps. Randy Frese, R-Paloma, David Welter, R-Morris, and Dan Swanson, R-Alpha, held a virtual news conference Monday morning during which they demanded House members be included in a future hearing about the LaSalle Veterans’ Home outbreak.
The Illinois House Republicans’ news conference comes about a week after the state Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing into the outbreak that began on Nov. 1, and resulted in the deaths of at least 28 residents. There are 100 residents currently at the home.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, the veterans home has reported a total of 106 residents and 96 employees testing positive with COVID-19. As of Friday, 38 residents and 76 staff had recovered from the virus.
Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, a member of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee, and Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, whose district includes the LaSalle home, also called for the next hearing into the LaSalle facility to be scheduled soon.
On Monday, Schimpf and Rezin sent a letter to the committee’s chairman, Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, requesting he “set the next hearing date within the next few weeks.”
In an email, Cullerton said the senators did not reach out to him directly and he was “disheartened that I had to learn about their concerns from the press.”
Cullerton said the next hearing date has not yet been set, but he is working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to plan the next meeting.
“The most important thing is to get answers as to why so many innocent lives have been lost and ensure no more people suffer the pain these people and their families have,” Cullerton said in the email.
Last week, Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs Director Linda Chapa LaVia announced the acting inspector general from the Illinois Department of Human Services would conduct an independent investigation into the LaSalle outbreak.
Gov. JB Pritzker said he supported the independent investigation during his daily news conference Monday.
“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.
The IDVA also released two reports last week from two separate on-site visits at the LaSalle home — the first conducted by an official from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Nov. 12, and the other by an official from the Illinois Department of Public Health on Nov. 17.
The visit reports found issues that required immediate change, including replacing all non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers with alcohol-based sanitizers, performing COVID-19 tests for residents and staff twice weekly rather than once per week, and requiring staff to follow strict personal protective equipment guidelines.
The U.S. VA official’s report found specific examples of staff violating PPE protocols, such as staff wearing masks below their chins. That report also noted that staff who eventually tested positive had attended a Halloween party.
When Chapa LaVia was asked about the staff attending a Halloween party during last week’s hearing, she said that could not be substantiated and the information was based on “word of mouth.”
During last week’s hearing, IDVA Chief of Staff Anthony Kolbeck revealed that five employees at LaSalle continued to work at the home after being notified they tested positive, although they worked with residents who also already had tested positive.
Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, including Frese and Swanson, initially requested a hearing into the COVID-19 outbreak at LaSalle on Nov. 10, through a letter sent to Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego, who chairs the committee.
According to Frese, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee should have been allowed to participate in the Senate committee’s hearing last week but were not invited.
“We ask, at the very least, that we be part of the Senate hearing that may be coming up to follow up the one that was held last Monday,” Frese said.
While the Senate has approved procedures for conducting virtual hearings, the House has not. This means any House committee meeting must take place in-person at the Capitol, which the General Assembly has avoided due to the ongoing pandemic.
Welter, whose district includes the LaSalle Veterans Home, said members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee need a hearing “to find out what protocols were missed, what were dropped, and if there was additional help that they asked from the state that may not have been received.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated with a comment from Sen. Tom Cullerton.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.