Newly released emails shed light on Vets' Home Legionnaires' res - WGEM.com: Quincy News, Weather, Sports, and Radio

Newly released emails shed light on Vets' Home Legionnaires' response

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The entrance to the Illinois Veterans' Home in Quincy. The entrance to the Illinois Veterans' Home in Quincy.
Legionella bacteria Legionella bacteria
WGEM's Gene Kennedy talks over the phone with WBEZ Radio reporter Dave McKinney. WGEM's Gene Kennedy talks over the phone with WBEZ Radio reporter Dave McKinney.
WBEZ Radio reporter Dave McKinney talks with WGEM News. WBEZ Radio reporter Dave McKinney talks with WGEM News.

Newly released emails from the Illinois governor's office show state officials worked to suppress information from the public and journalists during the 2015 Legionnaires' disease outbreak. The emails are some of the messages an oversight committee fought to see for weeks.

Back in February, in the second of two joint House-Senate committee hearings, Illinois lawmakers said they hit roadblocks and delays as they pushed the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs (IDVA) to disclose emails related to the deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the Illinois Veterans' Home in Quincy in 2015.

The emails are between state agencies and Governor Rauner's administration. Illinois representative Chris Welch said in the February 7 joint hearing, the fact that the emails hadn't been provided to the committee was a sign of a cover up. It was a comment aimed at the director of the IDPH, Dr. Nirav Shah, who fired back.

"Your assumption that there is a cover up at play is 150,000th unfounded. Wholly reject!," said Shah. "Where are the emails?" questioned Welch.

Three weeks after the hearing, WGEM News obtained nearly 1400 pages of emails through a Freedom of Information request to the Adams County Health Department. The emails include exchanges between officials and press aides prior to issuing the first news release about the 2015 outbreak and shows officials worked to limit information to journalists and the public.

In one email, an epidemiologist at Blessing Hospital, Dr. Robert Merrick, described a new release draft as 'smoke to cover peoples butts.'

Another email between a then nursing director at the Vets' Home and Shay Drummond, who was with the Adams County Health Department, discusses a Blessing Hospital doctor who admitted to a patient's family there was a Legionnaires' outbreak at the vets home. Drummond mentions discussing with the doctor about 'talking to patients and risk management.'

Jerrod Welch, administrator at the Adams County Health Department, told WGEM News Wednesday that there was no effort to suppress information. He said health officials were dealing with an emerging outbreak and waiting on lab results at that time to understand the full scope of what would become an epidemic.

WBEZ Radio in Chicago first received the emails. Reporter Dave McKinney explained what he learned from them to WGEM's Gene Kennedy.

"We see a kind of a real intimate look with them coming to grips with what would become enormous," McKinney said. "I don't think the state comprehended what it had on its hands."

"Your report talks a lot about the PR (public relations) of how the outbreak was handled," said reporter Gene Kennedy to McKinney. "What's the takeaway from that?"

"There was almost a daily tic toc of the continued talking points, "McKinney said. "How should we respond to reporters' calls and whistleblowers at the facility alleging that the state quote 'screwed up.' That's what one of the PR officials said."

The son of a veteran who died from Legionnaires' disease at the Quincy Vets' Home told WBEZ, he felt like the state was more concerned with how they handled public relations following the outbreak instead of sick veterans and their families. 

There's a third joint House-Senate committee hearing in the Legionnaires' probe scheduled for Monday March 5 in Chicago.

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