QUINCY, Ill. (WCIA) -- Governor Bruce Rauner announced on Wednesday his support for new funds to further improve or completely replace a living facility that houses more than 350 veterans nearly three years after the first case of Legionnaires' was reported at the home.
Thirteen residents died and dozens more fell ill after contracting a water-borne Legionella bacteria starting in 2015. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention inspected the site and wrote in a report that the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Department of Veterans' Affairs "committed considerable time, effort, and resources to implementing a water management program that has reduced both the number of Legionnaires’ disease cases...and the amount of detectable Legionella in the water systems."
Rauner spent a week eating, showering and living at the facility in a move his political opponents called a publicity stunt. Democratic primary candidate J.B. Pritzker held an open-air press conference in Chicago the morning after the WBEZ investigation was published back in December. The Pritzker campaign has since released a political attack ad titled "Quincy."
"This is what happens when a governor refuses to take charge and take responsibility," Pritzker said at the time. "These are real lives lost and families destroyed because of failures at the highest level of Bruce Rauner's administration."
The billionaire Democrat suggested the state should move the veterans to a different location.
"Let me be crystal clear," Rauner said in response, "I do not support closing this facility."
The Republican incumbent could face voters twice in 2018 with a primary challenge in March and a potential general election in November. His critics have blamed him for a number of issues surrounding the deadly outbreak and the state's response to it.
Wounded veteran and U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth used to head up the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. She stopped short of saying whether or not current Director Erica Jeffries should keep her job, but said the agency hasn't been transparent enough under her direction.
"The Department [of Veterans' Affairs] has been less than up front and has not provided information to the family members and the veterans themselves that there was this immediate health threat," Duckworth said in an interview with WCIA on Wednesday.
"We had a crisis in 2015," Rauner said during his remarks from the veterans home. "We had a significant outbreak of Legionella infection here on the campus. Our team took strong, aggressive, decisive action to deal with the outbreak, immediately implemented a water plan, immediately brought in the experts from the CDC in Atlanta, immediately brought in the experts from the [Illinois] Department of Public Health."
IDPH Director Nirav Shah testified before a committee hearing on Tuesday about his role in responding to the outbreak. State Senator Sam McCann (R-Plainview) questioned Shah's job performance and doubted whether he should still have his position with the state. Shah said he disagreed with McCann's assessment.
On Wednesday, Rauner said he visited the administrators of Blessing Hospital in Quincy and personally convinced them to increase their turnaround time for on-site testing of Legionella bacteria in order to identify potential infections more quickly.
"Our staff had been requesting the local hospital to do that, but there were some challenges. It didn't happen," Rauner explained. "I went over to meet with the leaders at Blessing Hospital on Monday and they committed that Blessing Hospital will now do the tests on site -- not send it out -- and we will get the tests back within a couple of hours."
"Here's our goal," Rauner exclaimed. "Zero instances of Legionella infection."
"We've done a very good job," he said, "but there's still some risk. There's Legionella in our environment."