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Rauner spends night in Quincy veterans home plagued by deadly water problems

Gov.+Bruce+Rauner+watches+from+his+seat+in+the+audience+as+President+Barack+Obama+speaks+on+the+designation+of+the+Pullman+National+Monument+Thursday%2C+Feb.+19%2C+2015+at+Gwendolyn+Brooks+College+Preparatory+Academy+in+Chicago.+%28Anthony+Souffle+%7C+Chicago+Tribune+%7C+TNS%29
Gov. Bruce Rauner watches from his seat in the audience as President Barack Obama speaks on the designation of the Pullman National Monument Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015 at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy in Chicago. (Anthony Souffle | Chicago Tribune | TNS)

Gov. Bruce Rauner watches from his seat in the audience as President Barack Obama speaks on the designation of the Pullman National Monument Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015 at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy in Chicago. (Anthony Souffle | Chicago Tribune | TNS)

(Anthony Souffle | Chicago Tribune | TNS)

(Anthony Souffle | Chicago Tribune | TNS)

Gov. Bruce Rauner watches from his seat in the audience as President Barack Obama speaks on the designation of the Pullman National Monument Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015 at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy in Chicago. (Anthony Souffle | Chicago Tribune | TNS)

Facing criticism over his administration’s handling of a deadly 2015 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at a state-run veterans home in downstate Quincy, Gov. Bruce Rauner is spending multiple nights at the facility to “gain a more thorough understanding” of operations there.

The governor’s stay was not publicized in advance. After Rauner’s office confirmed the trip Thursday, his Republican and Democratic challengers quickly dismissed it as a stunt, as they seize on the administration’s response to more than a dozen deaths at the state-run home to question the governor’s leadership abilities.

Rauner’s stay at the home comes after Fox News Channel carried a report at the end of last month about concerns over the cases of Legionnaires’ disease, taking the Illinois story to a national audience. It also comes days before a joint hearing on Tuesday of state House and Senate veteran’s affairs committees on how outbreaks at the facility and residential treatment have been handled.

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Rauner’s visit coincides with a new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assessment of the veterans’ home warning that “complete eradication” of the Legionella bacteria “may not be possible,” as is the case in any large complex water system.

As a result, the CDC said further recommendations would focus on “minimizing the risk of exposure among residents, staff and visitors.” Even so, the CDC said whether “our recommended changes will reduce risk is unclear” and could lead to “unintended consequences.”

“It is probable that this strain persists in protective biofilm, scale, and sediment that are present in the plumbing infrastructure,” said the CDC, which visited the home Dec. 4-6. The Quincy veterans home is the state’s oldest and still has some infrastructure more than a century old.

While Rauner previously has declined to say if he bears any moral responsibility for the deaths and illnesses, he has pushed back at critics. He was quoted as telling the Joliet Herald-News editorial board this week that “our team took immediate, strong action,” after the outbreak began in 2015, killing a dozen residents and sickening 50 more.

He said his administration brought in national experts and the CDC, and spent more than $6 million to update the home’s water filtration system. The disease is contracted by inhaling droplets of water that contain the bacteria.

“The reality is, and this is what’s not getting into the reports, the Legionnella bacteria is in most water systems in Illinois. There were just two infections of Legionnaires at Northwestern Hospital, which is not even an old facility and I think is regarded as a really well-run facility. These things happen,” the Joliet newspaper quoted Rauner as saying hours before he began his stay.

Rauner arrived at the home around 10 p.m. Wednesday, according to Dave MacDonna, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs. A spokeswoman for Rauner said he planned to spend several days with residents and staff and would be joined over the weekend by first lady Diana Rauner.

“He wants to gain a more thorough understanding of the clinical, water-treatment and residential operations of the home,” spokeswoman Rachel Bold said.

For Rauner, the issue has gone beyond the confounding Legionnella bacteria to become a subject of potential political contamination for the first-term governor. Care of military veterans holds a special patriotic place among voters.

State Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton, a West Point graduate who formerly served in the Army, questioned Rauner’s oversight of the facility and called his stay “a cynical and transparent publicity stunt.”

“The conditions in the Illinois Veterans Home, as well as the delayed response from the Rauner Administration, are betrayals of our veterans and the benefits they earned protecting our freedoms,” Ives said in a statement.

While Rauner’s visit also was assailed as a political stunt by Democratic governor candidate J.B. Pritzker’s campaign, such acts have precedent in Illinois politics. The governor’s action drew immediate parallels to the late Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne’s decision to move into the former Cabrini-Green housing project over Easter in 1981.

That move was designed to draw attention to violence and poor conditions there, but also brought Byrne national and international attention. Much of the news coverage was negative, though, and her officiating of an Easter gathering drew mocking protests from residents. She stayed at Cabrini-Green for three weeks and lost her 1983 re-election bid to Harold Washington.

And Democrat Dan Walker mounted his successful campaign for governor in 1971 by walking 1,197 miles from Brookport on the state’s southern border to South Beloit on Illinois’ northern border. It helped the obscure business executive gain attention to defeat the Democratic favorite and future U.S. Sen. Paul Simon in the primary and a re-election seeking Republican Gov. Richard Ogilvie.

In August 2001, Democrat Pat Quinn joined health care advocate Dr. Quentin Young on a 167-mile hike across Illinois to highlight a proposal that would provide universal health care. Quinn went on to win the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor and share the ticket with Rod Blagojevich.

Rauner’s stay in Quincy comes as the 2015 outbreak is under renewed scrutiny following a WBEZ-FM 91.5 report, which found that family members of residents at the facility had not been told about the outbreak of the water-borne illness until its later fatal stages. At least 11 lawsuits on behalf of those who died have been filed in the Illinois Court of Claims seeking damages from the state.

Documents also showed the CDC was not called until nearly a month after the first identifiable case of the illness in late July 2015. By the time the CDC arrived in Quincy on Sept. 1 of that year, the outbreak had escalated rapidly.

Despite remediation efforts to the facility’s water treatment system, five more people contracted the respiratory disease in 2016. The CDC said Thursday that there were six cases at the home in 2017, including one fatality.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin plans a visit to the home on Friday, and a group of state lawmakers toured it Wednesday in advance of the legislative hearing. State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego, said officials must provide more answers about why outbreaks continued after a new water treatment system was installed and give more details about procedures and protocols for checking on patients. She said the facility’s ventilation system should also be looked at, questioning if it’s possible that Legionella bacteria was being transmitted through the air on warm, humid days.

She said Rauner’s visit was “a day late and a dollar short.”

“I want to know if he took a shower,” Kifowit, a Marine Corps veteran, said.

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(c)2018 the Chicago Tribune

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