Imagine surviving the battlefields of World War II, only to end up dying of legionellosis in a state-run veterans’ home more than seven decades later. This is the reality for some residents of one such facility in west central Illinois.
On Dec. 12, 2017, WBEZ-FM, Chicago’s public radio station, published a report detailing a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy, Ill. Since July 2015, 13 residents have died of the disease, and at least 61 other residents and staff members fell ill. Eleven families of those who died have filed a lawsuit against the state for negligence.
While it is common for some facilities to have traces of Legionella in their water—one expert referenced in the report said the bacteria can be found in approximately 50% of all large buildings—the spread of the disease at this facility is concerning.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report issued in 2015 said the first outbreak “occurred in a setting with no formal water management plan, no Legionella-specific prevention plan, limited Legionella testing, and limited monitoring of water treatment parameters.”
The state has since invested $6.4 million in emergency upgrades to the water treatment system. The entire system has been rebuilt and each showerhead and sprayer is fitted with a filter to remove the bacteria, yet the disease still spreads, with the most recent legionellosis cases reported in October and November 2017.
The emergency repairs haven’t made a dent in the real problem, which is the aging piping system carrying water into the 131-year-old facility. In June 2017, CDC lauded the facility for its response efforts, but maintaned that residents still risk contracting the disease from kitchen sprayers, therapy tubs and in-room sinks.
Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs officials argue that the presence of Legionella is not uncommon, and this facility continues to test positive because they are testing for it so frequently. They also say that residents now get immediate medical attention at the first signs of pneumonia, and testing for Legionnaires’ disease is now part of the immediate protocol. This was not the case before the 2015 outbreak.
Short of replacing the miles of piping around the facility, there is not much else that can be done. Legislators, including Sen. Dick Durbin, are urging Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner to take action. Durbin proposed moving the facility’s 400 residents to a new location until the problem is fixed completely.
This issue’s Commercial Water section includes an article about Legionella testing requirements at medical services facilities (“Risk Assessment Requirements,” CW4). These requirements were put into place well after the initial outbreaks at the Illinois Veterans Home, but this story is a sobering example of how proactive testing and monitoring could have potentially saved lives.