Illinois to replace vets' plumbing amid Legionnaires' crisis

Flanked by residents of the Illinois Veterans Home, Gov. Bruce Rauner addresses members of the media during a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, at Smith Hall on the campus of the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy, Ill. Rauner has been staying at the facility since last week to better understand the operations of the home after it experienced a Legionnaires' disease outbreak. (Phil Carlson/The Quincy Herald-Whig via AP)[]

SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Bruce Rauner emerged Wednesday from a weeklong stay at a military veterans’ home beset by a deadly Legionnaires’ outbreak and announced the state will replace the plumbing at the sprawling, 130-year-old site.

The first-term Republican told reporters that cutting-edge water distribution will quickly advance his goal of “zero risk” of Legionnaires’ at the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy, where the disease has contributed to the deaths of 13 residents since 2015 and sickened dozens more veterans and staff members.

“The goal is, latest technology on material, latest technology on water flow,” Rauner said. “We do not want any places where any water could be standing for any period of time.”

Rauner also said he will assemble a group of experts to determine whether a state-of-the-art dorm should be built and whether a safer groundwater source is available for the home.

Quincy, 285 miles southwest of Chicago, draws water from the Mississippi River. Surface water tends to be warmer and more accessible to Legionella bacteria, Rauner said.

Legionnaires’ is a severe form of pneumonia caused by water-borne bacteria which can sicken those who inhale infected vapor. Erica Jeffries, Rauner’s director of veterans’ affairs, told a legislative committee Tuesday that replacing the plumbing would cost up to $30 million.

She said opinions differ on such a plan’s viability because digging could loosen Legionella bacteria in the soil or in the old pipes, although Rauner said one option is laying a parallel plumbing system which leaves the old one in place but doesn’t connect to it.

Finally, Rauner said the Quincy hospital has agreed to return results on Legionnaires’ tests within hours, instead of the days the Illinois Department of Public Health previously has had to wait. And he said filters to trap the bacteria will be tested on faucets in coming weeks, a recommendation in the latest report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Aerators have been placed only on shower heads and sprayers that tend to distribute more water vapor.

Rauner faces not only stiff Democratic opposition in his hopes for a November re-election, but a primary challenge March 20 from a conservative lawmaker.

With criticism mounting after a lawsuit was filed against the state by
11 families of stricken veterans, Rauner took a room at the home Jan. 3. He said Wednesday he ate all but two weekend lunches at the facility that’s home to more than 300 mostly skilled-nursing residents, and joked with one resident present about how he repeatedly “crushed” Rauner at the board game Connect 4.

“I’ve taken every shower here, drunk the water from the sinks as well as other sources and I’ve had a great time with our veterans and staff,” Rauner said.

But Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat, issued a statement Wednesday saying that he’s visited Quincy and “it didn’t take me staying there for a week” to understand the situation’s gravity.

“The governor and his administration need to quickly outline their capital plan to begin action and implement a strong strategy to provide our veterans the best possible care and service,” said Cullerton, who plans more hearings on the issue.

Rauner said his visit was largely motivated by suggestions, including from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, that the 200-acre facility be shuttered after the initial 2015 epidemic claimed 12 lives, came back in 2016 to make more ill, and again returned last summer, with another veteran succumbing in the fall.

Durbin toured the home last weekend and reversed his opinion on closure, promising to leverage federal Veterans’ Administration funding to help.