SPRINGFIELD — It's unlikely that the bacteria that led to the deaths of 13 military veterans from Legionnaires' disease since 2015 can be eliminated, federal health officials said Friday in a report on a continuing outbreak of the deadly malady at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its findings on an investigation of the facility's water supply on the same day that Sen. Dick Durbin toured the site, reversed his call for closing the 130-year-old home, and said he would do all he could to get federal support for continued remediation.
The CDC report notes that the risk of the severe pneumonia-like illness has been substantially reduced by veterans' home staff and the state's efforts to upgrade water purity, but found little cause to suggest it can be exterminated.
While Quincy's water-management plan is intended "to reduce risk for Legionnaires' disease, complete eradication of Legionella in any large, complex building water system may not be possible," the report said. "Therefore, some risk for Legionnaires' disease may remain in spite of a fully operational (water plan), especially for susceptible individuals exposed to building water that contains Legionella."
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has been harshly criticized for his administration's response to the crisis since WBEZ Radio reported the continuing problems last month, spent his second full day at the home Friday after taking a room there Wednesday night. His spokeswoman said he wants a better understanding of the home's operations, but he has not spoken publicly since his arrival in Quincy, home to about 400 veterans and their spouses.
“During my stay at the Quincy Veterans Home I have had the privilege of personally expressing my gratitude to our veterans and to the world-class staff who cares for them. The work that is being done here to look after residents in the skilled care unit where I am staying is so impressive, so caring, so full of honor and respect for our American heroes, Rauner said in statement.
Legionnaires' was blamed for the deaths of 12 residents in 2015, when dozens more were sickened. More became ill in 2016 and the sickness claimed another veteran's life last fall.
"It is a challenge to all of us, and it's a challenge we need to meet, to make sure the Quincy Veterans Home is in fact giving the best care and the safest care in the state," Durbin said after touring the site. "The fact that Legionnaires' disease recurred three straight years is a cause for concern to all of us, and certainly to the families of these veterans."
After the 2015 outbreak, the state spent more than $6 million upgrading the home's water system to minimize the risk from the Legionella bacterium, which flourishes in warm water systems and can infect people who inhale water or its vapor laced with it.
Recommendations in the CDC report include stricter protocols for diagnosing and reporting pneumonia-like symptoms, better education for all staff to recognize the signs, and tighter controls on regular flushing of faucets, such as conducting them only after residents are out of the rooms and in a way to minimize splashing.
It said the home should consider expanding the use of filters that have proven effective and halting the bacteria on showerheads, opting to put them on all faucets dispensing potable water.