Schimpf, Righter see issues with communications during Legionnaires' outbreak at vets home
While veterans watched live from the Quincy Veterans Home, Sens. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo) and Dale Righter (R-Mattoon) discussed communications during the Legionella outbreak at the site and why the outbreak even occurred during a Senate-House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing Monday.
For more than two hours, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Nirav Shah and Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs Director Erica Jeffries, were questioned at length over the outbreak of Legionnaire's disease that occurred at the site, killing 13 people since 2015.
Schimpf gave Shah and Jeffries an opportunity to make right what as been perceived as wrongdoing in the department heads' failure to inform officials of the outbreak, which many heard of through news reports rather than firsthand.
“I would like to give you the opportunity to do that now, before we get into some very specific questions,” Schimpf said.
Jeffries said in the last seven hours and two-and-half years of hearings that there is no such thing as over communication; however in the last few weeks and hearings she recognizes there has been a “lack of communication.”
“In the recent weeks we have been much more transparent in our letter writing to staff, residents and family members,” Jeffries said.
Shah said though his department effectively connects information to agencies they work with closely on a daily basis, the Legionella outbreak caused a breach in effective messaging to officials regarding the outbreak and the piping system that Legionella was spread through.
“We have not traditionally done as good as a job communicating with partners we do not communicate with on regular basis,” Shah said.
At the end of the meeting, Schimpf stressed honesty and that “in all candor we kind of thought we had this situation under control,” to both Shah and Jeffries before asking if they thought that was a fair statement.
“I think certainly we thought we were on the right path,” Jeffries answered.
The senator said in hindsight, with all the information he has now, he understands why certain choices were made, but “now I can look back and say it shouldn’t have been just the water purification unit, it should have been the pipes as well.”
“We are three years out and we have much more information and we are finding out this is a very different problem than what we initially thought,” Schimpf said, adding going forward he would like have all data at hand to make more educated decisions regarding the water purification and piping systems.
Righter sought more scientific answers from Shah, asking about the deadly bacterial disease itself and “the impression given that if you clean things really well or replace the pipes,” it will eradicate Legionella.
“What we have learned is that it is a very heardy bacterium that can grow very slowly in inhospitable conditions and from time to time it can flare up and at times cause what we know to be outbreaks,” Shah said, adding the actual bacteria is found in biofilm that accumulates within piping, specifically in older plumbing systems as seen at the Quincy Veterans Home.
“No matter how much hot water or chemical we might run through the pipes, a piece of that biofilm can break off and in an unfortunate setting cause folks to get ill,” he added.
Righter wanted to know what has happened since 2015 that caused the fatal inhospitable conditions that killed 13 residents and employees; however, Shah could not directly address the question and quoted the significant level of Legionella decline in the pipe testing.
“The levels of detectable Legionella in the water system at the veteran’s home have fallen dramatically,” Shah said. “In August, September of 2015 they were off the chart where as today we have to struggle to find even the faintest test of Legionella in the water.”