Dr. Ngozi Ezike Can’t Recall Speaking With Former Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs During LaSalle Veteran’s Home COVID Outbreak

The director of the Illinois Department of Public Health can’t recall if she had talked with the former director of the Department of Veterans Affairs during the peak of the deadly LaSalle Veteran’s Home COVID-19 outbreak last fall.

On Nov. 1, 2020, it was clear there was a COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home, but IDPH was not on scene until ten days later. The outbreak led to 36 residents there dying and more than 200 people were sickened. Previous reports highlighted ineffective hand sanitizer, improper COVID-19 protocols and other issues.

A report released last month from a Pritzker administration inspector general was the focus of more than eight hours of hearings in two different legislative committees.

During Friday’s hearing in a Senate committee, IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike told state Sen. Craig Wilcox, R-McHenry, she would regularly talk with then IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia before the outbreak to support and pray with each other.

Ezike couldn’t say if they talked during the peak of the outbreak at the LaSalle home that eventually killed 36 residents.

“Did you ever have any direct contact with the former director from Nov. 1 through Nov. 9,” Wilcox asked.

“Nov. 1 to Nov. 9, I don’t recall specific interaction during that time,” Ezike said.

Chapa LaVia, who Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he hired because of her inquiries as a state lawmaker into the Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak at the Quincy Veterans’ home during the administration of Gov. Bruce Rauner, resigned in January following several hearings into last November’s COVID-19 outbreak.

Acting Illinois Department of Human Services Inspector General Peter Neumer acknowledged didn’t interview Chapa LaVia for their report released last month.

“It would have been ideal had we been able to talk to everyone, but I feel very confident even with those modest limitations that we were able to get to the root causes at the LaSalle home,” Neumer told a Senate committee Friday.

He also said he didn’t interview Ezike or Deputy Governor Sol Flores, who was overseeing IDPH and IDVA.

“The reason we didn’t interview individuals from the governor’s office is because, yes, our assessment was key to finding out what happened at the LaSalle home, was to interview the folks from the LaSalle home and IDVA, that was the best avenue in determining what caused this,” Neumer said.

Flores told Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, Chapa LaVia appeared very engaged all throughout the pandemic.

“Pretty good roos, but according to the report she wasn’t doing that, though,” Cullerton said. “I feel bad for our veterans and I’m sorry you had to go through that as well.”

Flores said she is “sorry,” and shares the sorrow of the victims’ families.

“Answers are no replacement for the lives that have been lost,” she said.

After Thursday’s hours-long House hearing, state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego, said one thing is clear.

“It was a complete failure of leadership, the leadership team at IDVA and that’s why I’m committed to making sure that there are at least minimum qualification, at least minimum experience levels,” Kifowit said.

The new IDVA Director, Terry Prince, agreed, people need to be assessed on their qualifications and experience.

State Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, said if the state continues to fail veterans in their care, it may be time to relinquish control.

“These are people that have given their all to the United States and to the state of Illinois, the people of our country, and I certainly think that if we can’t run it properly we owe it to them to look at other options,” Davidsmeyer said.

Prince told a Senate committee Friday the costs for private care could put veterans’ family members in financial burden and he will fight for the state to maintain the resource as long as he’s in the position.

More oversight hearings are expected.