Veterans Died Without Attention from Illinois’ Health Department

The Illinois Department of Public Health became a trusted source for many throughout the pandemic.

But a new report from the state’s auditor general finds that IDPH neglected to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak at a state-run veterans’ home until for many, it was too late.

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Thirty-six residents of the LaSalle Veterans’ Home died in November 2020 as part of that outbreak.

One of them was Richard Cieski, who died Nov. 15 that year.

Cieski’s family regularly visited him. His wife spent every day there, from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. She would eat with her husband and the handful of veterans that he regularly sat with daily for lunch; reading their menus, helping her husband put on a bib.

Until the pandemic hit, when suddenly visits weren’t allowed.

Leslie Lamb – “like the lamb” — is the “oldest, proudest daughter” of her late father, and said her mom and their other relatives adjusted to the COVID-19 protections, visiting him through his window. Not ideal, given that her dad at 89 was hard of hearing and the masks made that even more difficult.

But worth it.

“It was just really weird,” she said. “But it was good to see his face and to see him glow when he looks at us. So it was worth just to see his face through the dirty window.”

Lamb was impressed that even as the pandemic hit other congregate settings, LaSalle was safe.

Eight months into the pandemic, though, the coronavirus surged through the home. Her dad and his lunch pals all got COVID-19.

Lamb said the last time the family visited Cieski, she brought Windex so he could see them better.

“It was that night – that night in fact, after we all said our goodbyes through the window – it was like he was waiting for all of us to come and say goodbye because he died that night. So he went from being semi-okay to on his death bed in a number of hours. That’s how quickly that happened,” Lamb said. “Suddenly my dad was gone.”

A new investigation by the state’s independent auditor general, former Democratic State Representative Frank Mautino, details how the state responded: Slowly, and poorly.

“What’s troubling for me is that the governor, this administration, and the department of public health, waited almost 12 days before they arrived on site to see what was happening in the home,” State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, said. “Had they arrived on the site at the first onset of an outbreak Nov. 1, they could have slowed the outbreak.”

The LaSalle Veterans’ Home is in Rezin’s district. She said whistleblowers had called her about problems at LaSalle, like a lack of masks, a lack of guidance, procedures that weren’t being followed.

“Let me just explain very briefly how quickly this spread. No. 1 you had several residents that have COVID, by definition that’s an outbreak. By Nov. 4 there were 46 residents that had contracted COVID and 11 staff. By the time the governor and the department of public health staff decided to make a site visit, to visit in person to see what’s going on which was Nov. 12, almost 12 days after the initial outbreak, by then we had 83 residents who’d contracted COVID – 83 World War II veterans that served their country,” Rezin said.

The 154-page audit slams the Pritzker administration, saying “although the Illinois Department of Public Health officials were informed of the increasing positive cases almost on a daily basis by the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs Chief of Staff, IDPH did not identify and respond to the seriousness of the outbreak.”

The audit also takes umbrage with a previous report on the situation ordered by Pritzker, focused on the veteran’s affairs department, saying the scope of that was “narrow” and its primary finding “flawed.”

Pritzker Thursday said he took action upon learning of the situation, ultimately firing the director of the state veteran’s affairs agency, former state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia.

The governor said at the time of the outbreak, Illinois was fighting an uphill battle to stop the pandemic’s spread.

“Remember this is before we had vaccines. We were working against Republican elected officials who told people to defy mitigation efforts. We told people that they needed to follow those mitigations, but Republicans told them that they need not wear masks. They told people that they didn’t need to get vaccinated. They told people that COVID wasn’t serious. Those lies put people’s lives at risk, especially the most vulnerable,” Pritzker said. “Even as my team and I worked 18 hours a day for nine months straight to fight them.”

But those who want to replace him as governor say Pritzker, a Democrat, wears the blame.

Republican candidate for governor Darren Bailey said Pritzker’s response is especially egregious considering the governor’s office blasted his predecessor, GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner, for failures to manage an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease at the Quincy veteran’s home that killed 14 residents.

“When you are governor, the buck stops with you. My heart is breaking for these veterans and their families. And my blood boils when I see excuses coming from our governor. It’s downright embarrassing that we have a governor who blames everyone but himself. Excuses won’t bring our veterans back,” Bailey said.

Leslie Lamb also isn’t satisfied.

She gets emotional when she thinks about her dad, who served in the army during the Korean War, dying. Alone. And without the morphine he’d been prescribed, as the home didn’t have any.

“So he suffered the last hours of his life, trying to breathe. There is nothing worse than that. Choking on his phlegm. And all alone. I mean no one deserves that. No one,” Lamb said. “And for Gov. Pritzker to just keep passing this and blaming everybody? Take hold of something and get the thing done right the way it should be done. Step up.”

Lamb is one of 27 families suing the state. She says she wants Pritzker to acknowledge that, so she can grieve. And to get it right in the future.

Attorney Steve Levin of Levin & Perconti, who represents Lamb and the other families says there has been no update since the suits were filed in March.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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