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Dec 20, 2017

Veterans At Risk

On Dec. 12, 2017, WBEZ-FM, Chicago’s public radio station, published a report detailing a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at a Quincy, Ill., veterans’ home. Since July 2015, 13 residents at the Illinois Veterans Home died of the disease, and at least 61 other residents and staff members were taken ill. Eleven families of those who died have filed a lawsuit against the state for negligence.

The full WBEZ report is heartbreaking, detailing the lives of the veterans who risked their lives in battle only to lose them to contaminated water. The these veterans’ stories are inspirational, and all have a tragic ending.

While it is common for large buildings to have some form of Legionella in their water—one expert referenced in the report says the bacteria can be found in approximately 50% of all large buildings—the spread of the disease at this particular facility is concerning.

Since the initial outbreak, the state has invested $6.4 million in emergency upgrades to the water treatment system on the 201-acre site. The entire water treatment 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. According to the Chicago Sun Times, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report issued in 2016 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.”

These 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, the 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 for it 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 feeding water into the facility, there is not much left 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. If that's not possible, he is calling for the facility to be closed. 

A joint legislative hearing on the outbreak is set for Jan. 9, 2018, and will offer an opportunity for the Illinois General Assembly's two Veterans Affairs Committees to learn more about the outbreak itself, as well as the veterans' home's response. 

Proactive water quality testing and monitoring is essential, particularly in facilities that house at-risk individuals. In June 2017, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services issued a memorandum, requiring healthcare facility water systems—which include long-term care facilities—to conduct risk assessments and develop water management programs that include testing for Legionella. If proactive, preventive measures like these had been in place at the Illinois Veterans Home prior to the initial case of legionellosis, the ensuing outbreak may have been avoided.