Illinois coronavirus: Veterans Affairs-linked COVID-19 cases in IL among highest nationwide

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The Veterans Health Administration is the nation's largest healthcare network and tonight the I-Team is investigating COVID-19 case data that shows hundreds of Illinois VA patients are battling the virus.

Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, headquartered on Chicago's West Side cares for 60,000 local veterans through their main hospital and neighborhood clinics. It is the VA facility in Illinois that has been hardest hit by COVID-19: 180 infection cases here and 12 deaths.

An I-Team data analysis shows the increasing impact of COVID-19 at Veterans Administration facilities nationwide. As of Wednesday, VA facilities nationwide report 5742 cases of coronavirus and 372 deaths linked to the virus.



While the 446 cases at Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care Systems in New Orleans is the most in the country, Chicago's Jesse Brown VA facility ranks fifth nationwide in all confirmed cases-- just behind VA facilities in New York and New Jersey. In total, four VA facilities in Illinois have confirmed COVID-19 Cases. 366 total cases statewide are linked to VA facilities and 18 deaths. Nationwide, Illinois ranks fifth for VA related deaths.

In a statement to the I-Team tonight, VA officials say "The number of positive COVID-19 cases at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center "is not unusual considering the nature of this pandemic and the fact that the medical center is located in a heavily populated area."

VA officials contend they have "proactively implemented appropriate measures...to ensure the safest health care environment for Veterans and employees."



"These are our nation's veterans, they have given of themselves for the society and I believe they deserve the best care," says Anne Lindgren, president of AFGE Local 789. Her union represents workers at Jesse Brown VA. Lindgren tells the I-Team the union is seeking better protective equipment and increased employee screening.

"We don't trust that the agency is being transparent and honest and doing everything that they can to protect us," Lindgren said.

The second most cases in Illinois are at the Captain James Lovell Federal Health Center in North Chicago, 128 COVID-19 cases with one death. West suburban Hines VA Hospital reports 57 cases and 5 deaths.



STATE VETERANS FACILITIES BEGIN TO SEE COVID-19 CASES

State veterans and health officials tell the I-Team that there have been three cases confirmed at Illinois Veterans' Homes - all employees at the Manteo facility. Two of those employees are from the same household, according to a statement released Wednesday. State officials also confirm that two residents and four staff at the Prince Home at Manteno - a program for homeless and disabled Veterans on the same property as the Manteno Illinois Veterans' Home.

"There's no way to prevent it in any specific demographic and any class of citizen here in Illinois so we're seeing it in veterans," said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Illinois Department of Public Health Director. Dr. Ezike and Governor JB Pritzker say they've been working with the VA to use some of their health care capacity to treat non-veteran COVID-19 patients.

Full Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs Statement:

The safety and well-being of Illinois' military veterans and the heroic staff who care for them every day is, and always will be, the top priority of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs.

On March 11th, each of IDVA's veterans' homes was directed to restrict all visitation to non-essential personnel. Residents have been encouraged to stay in their units and minimize movement within the facilities, and the homes are staggering meal-times wherever possible. All essential staff are subject to multiple health screenings before and during their shifts, including temperature checks.

Staff and residents have implemented safe social distancing practices and each home has intensified cleaning and disinfection protocols. IDVA is contacting all resources, stocking up on, and reviewing protective equipment inventories, and everyone remains highly vigilant for any signs or symptoms of COVID-19. Thanks to the tireless efforts of team IDVA, there have been no known cases to date in any residents of IDVA's long-term care facilities.

During this unprecedented time, activities and social services staff continue to develop leisure activities, in accordance with safe social distancing practices, to care for the psychosocial well-being of Illinois' military veterans. Family, friends, residents, and volunteers are encouraged to call, write, and video chat to stay in touch as often as possible while visitation is restricted.

To date, there have been 3 total cases confirmed at any of the Illinois Veterans' Homes. The three positive cases were all employees at the Illinois Veterans' Home at Manteno and two of the employees are from the same household.

Beyond Illinois Veterans Homes, there have been a total of 6 cases (2 residents and 4 staff) from the Prince Home at Manteno. The Prince Home is a facility on the same property as IVH Manteno, but is not a long-term care facility. Prince Home is a program for homeless and disabled Veterans, which provides supportive services and temporary housing to allow Veterans to gain independence.

Full VA answers to I-Team questions:

Q. VA data shows Jesse Brown is the hardest hit VA facility in the state, 180 cases and 12 deaths. That's 5th nationwide in cases. What is the hospital doing to keep veterans and staff safe there? Why does it rank so high?

A. The number of positive COVID-19 cases at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center is not unusual considering the nature of this pandemic and the fact that the medical center is located in a heavily populated area of a major metropolitan city. Jesse Brown VA Medical Center is one of two Illinois VA medical facilities that have accepted intensive care and acute medical and surgical community patients as part of the Fourth Mission. We are open and willing to continue accepting patients to support community needs.

We have proactively implemented appropriate measures at our VISN 12 medical facilities to ensure the safest health care environment for Veterans and employees. Our facilities are screening Veterans and staff who present with symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath who meet the CDC criteria for evaluation of COVID-19 infection. Per CDC guidance and VA protocols, patients known to be at risk for a COVID-19 infection are immediately isolated to prevent potential spread to others. We also encourage Veterans and staff to take everyday preventive actions to avoid being exposed to the virus, and we utilize Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in accordance with CDC guidelines.

Positive COVID-19 inpatient Veterans are cared for in respiratory isolation by staff who are specially trained on CDC treatment guidelines, including the use of personal protective equipment and infection control techniques. In accordance with CDC guidelines and the employee's status, VISN 12 employees who test positive for COVID-19 remain in home isolation, mitigating further risk of transmission to other patients and staff.

Our VISN 12 medical facilities are also leveraging virtual care tools to make sure our patients and staff are as safe as possible during this time. To help us address our Veterans' most-urgent needs first, we ask that Veterans use our online tools for routine or non-urgent questions. Veterans can receive care at home either over the phone or via video using VA Video Connect on their computers, smartphones, or tablets. To set up telephone or video appointments, or to send online secure messages to their VA health care team to ask them nonurgent health questions, Veterans can send their provider a secure message on My HealtheVet by visiting myhealth.va.gov. Veterans can also request prescription refills and order and ship medications to their homes using My HealtheVet or the Rx Refill mobile app.

Q. What precautions are being taken at the facility?

A. See above response.

Q. When were cases first diagnosed at the facility?

A. The first positive COVID-19 test result was received at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center on March 21, 2020.

Q. Whose lead do you follow when federal/local rules differ re: stay at home etc.?

A. Our VA medical facilities follow the shelter-in-place rules of the state in which the facility operates.

Q. Do you know the breakdown of cases at the main hospital vs affiliated clinics?

A. VA reports the combined facility/clinic number of positive COVID-19 cases and deaths at VA medical facilities on the VA Access to Care website, located at https://www.accesstocare.va.gov/Healthcare/COVID19NationalSummary.
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