COVID-19 has emerged at three of the four state-run homes for veterans, including a significant outbreak in a home outside Kankakee where testing has found 52 cases in residents and workers, with one fatality, Illinois officials said Thursday.
At the hardest-hit facility — the Manteno Veterans’ Home, about 50 miles southwest of Chicago — 33 residents and 19 staff members had tested positive as of Thursday, according to Evan Fazio, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The department also reported that a resident who had been in hospice care since 2019 recently tested positive and died at the facility.
Fazio said one resident had tested positive at the veterans home in LaSalle, an hour and a half west of Manteno, and five residents were found to be infected at a home in Anna in southern Illinois. There were no confirmed cases at the facility in Quincy along the border with Missouri.
The four veterans homes were funded to care for more than 800 veterans and their spouses and widows in the 2019 fiscal year, according to the last annual report from the state Department of Veterans’ Affairs. First priority for spots at the homes goes to wartime veterans.
All residents and staff members have been tested, but as of Thursday morning about 100 results were still pending, Fazio said.
Little was said about the veterans homes during the pandemic before Gov. J.B. Pritzker discussed them at his daily briefing Wednesday. The homes had been testing residents and workers who showed symptoms, but more cases emerged after the facilities obtained enough tests for everyone last week, said Linda Chapa LaVia, director of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which operates the homes.
There have been vastly worse outbreaks at private nursing homes and, she said, “We’ve been blessed to stay ahead of the storm.”
Indeed, dozens of private long-term care facilities around the state had reported 50 or more cases each as of May 8. The facilities account for some 1,500 deaths of residents and workers, nearly half of fatalities statewide.
The state’s handling of a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the Quincy home drew controversy in 2015. Following reporting by WBEZ-FM on the response by the administration of then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, the issue played a role in the 2018 governor’s race and a state audit found that officials had downplayed the seriousness of the problem. The disease killed a more than a dozen people at the facility.
In his comments Wednesday, Pritzker touted the measures taken to keep the state-run homes safe from a virus that preys aggressively on the elderly. Even before the virus took hold in Illinois’ nursing homes, Pritzker said, the state had mandated screening for employees and visitors at the veterans facilities and canceled most off-site activities, among other measures.
Unionized workers at private nursing homes have complained of what they describe as inadequate efforts to keep them safe. But officials from American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 praised the measures taken at the state-run homes, which employ hundreds of the union’s members as nursing assistants and in other roles.
Leaders from the union — which has had a relatively harmonious relationship with the Pritzker administration — said broader testing earlier would have been better but they were told test kits were not available.
“You don’t ever want to be Pollyanna but we feel very good about where we’re at now,” said AFSCME Council 31 spokesman Anders Lindall.
Union member Dave Pedersen, a volunteer coordinator at the Manteno home who identified himself as an Army veteran, said the home’s residents benefit from the support of veterans groups and donations that residents of some private homes might not see. He praised the response from the home and its staff but added: “I think the anxiety level for most staff is definitely higher than normal.”
“It’s not a job for somebody who isn’t brave,” he said.
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