At a committee hearing held on Tuesday, March 16, Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs officials reported that all four state-run Veterans homes have no staff or residents currently positive for COVID-19, but the agency is still working to produce uniform infection control procedures for the facilities.
IDVA Chief of Staff Tony Kolbeck, who testified during the virtual House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, said he expects those protocols will be finalized within two weeks.
The update comes after three of the four facilities — in LaSalle, Quincy and Manteno — experienced outbreaks of COVID-19. Those outbreaks resulted in 19 resident deaths at Manteno and 24 resident deaths at Quincy since the outbreak began.
The most severe outbreak was reported at the LaSalle home where 36 residents have died of COVID-19 since November, or roughly one-quarter of the resident population.
The outbreak at LaSalle has prompted an independent investigation by the acting inspector general of the state Department of Human Services, as well as an investigation by the House Civil Judiciary Committee.
The LaSalle home administrator, Angela Mehlbrech, was fired in the aftermath of the outbreak, and the director of nursing at the LaSalle facility, Jackie Cook, remains on leave. Former IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia resigned in January, following calls for her to step down due to the department’s handling of the outbreak.
IDVA Acting Assistant Director Anthony Vaughn was named the interim administrator at LaSalle and Maj. Gen. Peter Nezamis of the Illinois Air National Guard has been named the department’s interim director.
In his testimony, Kolbeck said the vacancies left by Mehlbrech and Cook have not yet been filled.
Democratic Rep. Lance Yednock, of Ottawa, asked the representatives from IDVA about the department’s efforts to implement new protocols or procedures at the Veterans homes “in order to do something different than what has happened at LaSalle in case we have a variant outbreak.”
Kolbeck said he has been in his discussions with the infection control team at Illinois Department of Public Health about establishing those protocols across all the Veterans homes.
“While each home has procedures in place that address these matters, the recommendation was to standardize those across all homes. We are still in drafts but working to do that,” Kolbeck said, adding that he anticipates the draft will be complete within two weeks.
Kolbeck said 96.9 percent of residents and 53 percent of staff across the four homes are fully vaccinated. Specifically at LaSalle, 92 percent of residents and 62 percent of staff are vaccinated, Kolbeck said.
With the positivity rate decreasing statewide, Kolbeck said the homes have shifted from testing staff and residents for COVID-19 daily to weekly PCR tests for staff and biweekly tests for residents.
He said the practice of testing staff with an antigen test at each shift change has been suspended but would be reinstated if there is another outbreak. In addition, any staff or resident who becomes symptomatic will be tested using both an antigen and PCR test.
An interagency infection prevention project report and an air quality assessment for all the homes will be publicly released by the end of the week, Kolbeck said.
The prevention project report will contain a review of current policies, procedures, and practices relating to COVID-19 response at each facility and identify issues for which corrective action is needed, according to an IDVA spokesperson.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance for long-term care facilities on Friday, Kolbeck said, and the Illinois Department of Public Health is currently updating the long-term care reopening guidance.
Indoor visits, under safety restrictions, are allowed at all veterans homes, he said.
“Our facilities are prepared to adjust the visitation protocols to meet the expanded visitation guidelines,” he said.
In addition, new admissions have resumed at Quincy and Manteno, beginning with five residents per week at Quincy and four per week at Manteno.
“The new CDC guidelines will further adjust how admissions are conducted, but typically four to five residents at a time, within a week, is best for both residents and the staff,” Kolbeck said.