By JOHN O’CONNOR – AP Political Writer
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Slowness, poor compliance with existing rules, and little help from state public health officials have crippled Governor JB Pritzker’s administration’s response to an outbreak of COVID-19. 19 in November 2020 at a northern Illinois veterans home that left 36 people dead, according to a state audit released Thursday.
Auditor General Frank Mautino’s review argues that the Illinois Department of Public Health “failed to identify and respond to the severity of the outbreak.” For nearly two weeks after the problem was identified Nov. 1 at the LaSalle Veterans Home, IDPH officials failed to visit the site and offered no assistance. LaSalle staff performed slow and uncoordinated testing for the virus, according to the review.
A total of 85% of the home’s 128 residents and 38% of its 231 staff members contracted the disease during the outbreak, which Mautino said happened when infections statewide were rising rapidly and there was no preventive vaccine yet.
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Pritzker, a Democrat, blamed Republicans who opposed tactics to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“We were working against elected Republicans who were telling people to defy mitigation efforts. We told people to follow these mitigations,” Pritzker told reporters on Capitol Hill. “The Republicans told them they didn’t need to wear masks. They told people they didn’t need to get vaccinated. They told people COVID wasn’t serious These lies put people’s lives at risk, especially the most vulnerable.
Pritzker suggested that visitors to LaSalle who refused to comply with safety measures such as face coverings and social distancing were unwittingly carrying the virus into the LaSalle nursing home.
An April 2021 report from the Inspector General of the Department of Human Services reported that during an on-site visit, which did not take place until November 12, officials discovered an ineffective and unsafe hand sanitizer. widely used alcohol and no one was responsible for replacing it. , staff reporting to work taking their own temperatures and initialing the results, and the limited availability and use of personal protective equipment such as face coverings.
Pritzker, who later acknowledged that “some mismanagement” was to blame and said that as governor, “I understand that these agencies are my responsibility”, argued that he had held staff accountable, notably by sacking the director of LaSalle Angela Mehlbrech in December 2020.
However, he said that since IDPH is responsible for not providing more assistance, the agency was controlling the entire state response during the worst surge of the pandemic and dealing with trouble spots. in all directions. But at no time during fall 2020 or at any time during the pandemic did Pritzker or his team suggest that IDPH couldn’t keep up.
Rep. Lance Yednock, an Ottawa Democrat who led the House call for Mautino’s audit, lamented a breakdown in interagency coordination to respond quickly and that “most likely led to more illnesses.” and death. It also underscores the terrifying speed of infection we saw at the height of COVID-19 and recognizes that even the best preparation and planning might not have been enough to prevent more infection.
Mautino auditors criticized last year’s inspector general’s report, saying it relied too heavily on investigative interviews and paid too little attention to paper trails, a strong point of the auditor general.
This resulted in a stunning turnaround in the assessment of then-veterans chief of staff Anthony Kolbeck. While the inspector general’s review tainted him with insufficient follow-up on the issue, Mautino reviewed dozens of emails and determined that Kolbeck was in regular contact with the public health department the first two weeks of November. . When IDPH failed to act, the audit said Kolbeck asked the agency to visit and seek information on rapid tests and antibody treatments.
Kolbeck nonetheless resigned in the weeks following the fallout from the outbreak. So did then-director of veterans affairs, Linda Chapa LaVia, whom Pritzker replaced in the spring of 2021 with Terry Prince, a 31-year-old Navy veteran and former senior adviser to the US Surgeon General.
The Inspector General’s report blamed the “lack of standard operating procedures” for dealing with COVID-19. Conversely, Mautino said that in addition to general infection control policies in place before the pandemic, his team uncovered hundreds of pages of COVID-19-specific guidance from IDPH and federal control centers. and disease prevention and specific guidelines for LaSalle developed as of March 2020.
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