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Rauner spends night in Quincy veterans home plagued by deadly water problems

Chicago Tribune - 1/4/2018

Jan. 04--Gov. Bruce Rauner spent Wednesday night at the state veterans home in Downstate Quincy, as his administration has come under scrutiny for its handling of a 2015 outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that killed a dozen residents.

Dave MacDonna, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, said Rauner arrived at the home around 10 p.m. Wednesday. A spokeswoman for Rauner said he planned to spend several days there with residents and staff.

"He wants to gain a more thorough understanding of the clinical, water-treatment and residential operations of the home," spokeswoman Rachel Bold said.

Rauner's stay comes as the Illinois House and Senate veterans affairs committees are scheduled to hold an investigatory hearing on Tuesday in Chicago. In preparation, several lawmakers toured the home on Wednesday, including Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, a Democrat from Oswego.

The Marine Corps veteran described the visit as an "introductory tour" in which lawmakers visited one residential facility, met with some survivors who contracted the disease, and learned about the new water treatment facility.

Kifowit said officials must provide more answers about why outbreaks continued after a new water treatment system was installed and provide more details about procedures and protocols for checking on patients. She said the facility's ventilation system should also be looked at, questioning if it's possible that Legionella bacteria was being transmitted through the air on warm, humid days.

"He should have been visiting the home constantly in 2015 and 2016 to make sure the veterans we safe and taken care of," Kifowit said, calling the Rauner stay "symbolic." "He's a day late and a dollar short."

The 2015 outbreak has come under renewed scrutiny following a WBEZ-FM 91.5 report, which found that family members of residents at the facility had not been told about the outbreak of the water-borne illness until its later fatal stages. At least 11 lawsuits on behalf of those who died have been filed in the Illinois Court of Claims seeking damages from the state.

Documents also showed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not called until nearly a month after the first identifiable case of the illness in late July 2015. By the time the CDC arrived in Quincy on Sept. 1 of that year, the outbreak had escalated rapidly.

Following the 2015 outbreak, which killed 12 people and sickened more than 50 others, the state has spent more than $6 million in remediation efforts to the facility's water treatment system aimed at eradicating Legionella bacteria, which grows in warm water and is often present in water supplies. The home dates to 1886.

But three people at the veterans home contracted the respiratory disease the following year, and three more cases at the facility were identified this year.

Last month, Rauner declined to say if he bears any moral responsibility for the deaths and illnesses at the state's largest and oldest veteran's home, saying "I work every day to support our veterans. They are our heroes. And I will never ever back down or give up on fighting and working to keep our veterans safe."

mcgarcia@chicagotribune.com

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