Illinois lawmakers hold hearing after 33 deaths at LaSalle veterans home

Wednesday, December 16, 2020
Lawmakers hold hearing after 33 deaths at LaSalle Veterans Home
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Illinois lawmakers said Wednesday they want a specific timeline of what happened at the Illinois Veterans' Home in LaSalle.

LASALLE, Ill. (WLS) -- After 33 veterans died at the Illinois Veterans' Home in LaSalle, state lawmakers held a hearing Wednesday to figure out who's responsible for the outbreak and why it happened in the first place.

"We have to drill down and just answer the question of what happened," said State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, the chairperson of the Illinois House Veterans' Affairs Committee, which conducted a part virtual, part in-person meeting on Wednesday.

RELATED: LaSalle Veterans Home COVID-19 outbreak leaves 33 dead

A COVID-19 outbreak at an Illinois Veterans' home has now left 33 residents dead.

The COVID-19 outbreak that killed 33 veterans started in early November. Along with the deaths, dozens of staff members and residents tested positive throughout the month. Ultimately, the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs fired Home Administrator Angela Mehlbrech. The department's Acting Assistant Director Anthony Vaughn is now serving as the interim administrator at the home. Along with personnel changes, officials with the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs report they have implemented recommendations from the state health department and U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs.

After hours of listening to officials, lawmakers grew frustrated at Wednesday's hearing. They want a specific timeline of what happened.

"When is someone going to own this? We all feel bad, we all are devastated at the loss of these 33 individuals," said State Rep. Jeff Keicher, a committee member. "But I keep hearing dodges, I keep hearing explanations. But I don't hear ownership!"

RELATED: Illinois losing battle to save veterans at state care facilities

The COVID-19 death toll at Illinois Veterans Home in LaSalle has now climbed to 28.

Linda Chapa LaVia, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, responded to Keicher: "Ultimately, I'm responsible for our veterans homes and veterans well-being," she said.

Since the outbreak, the Department of Veterans' Affairs has announced changes at the home. First, the staff was retrained on using masks. The home replaced its hand sanitizer after learning the brand they were using was not effective against Covid-19. The department also improved employee screening, like getting rapid Covid tests before their shifts.

But the committee wants a specific timeline of events, like when did state health officials do an on-site visit at the LaSalle home? Who requested it and when? How long did it take? How about federal VA officials?

"I think we have some more questions after this. I just don't think we have the answers we're looking for," said State Rep. Lance Yednock, a committee member.

Others agreed. Rep. Keicher added: "We need to offer these families closure. We've lost 33 veterans prematurely. My hope the work of this committee will help us get a sense of responsibility within Illinois state government."

As part of its work, the committee has filed several Freedom of Information requests to the LaSalle County Health Department, Governor Pritzker's office, and the state veterans' department. The committee has not received all of its requests as of Wednesday.

"So we got some emails from the LaSalle County Health Department. We didn't get them all," Kifowit said. "We got up to August. We requested emails from IDVA and the governor's office."

Meantime, the committee also learned Wednesday there are no new COVID-19 cases at the home.

Since the committee is seeking more information and want more answers, members plan to meet again next year.