Week in Review: COVID deaths at veterans home, bridge phase, fair maps & more

Top Pritzker officials refuse to accept responsibility for COVID-19 outbreak and 36 deaths at LaSalle Veterans Home. During a nearly four-hour hearing of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Thursday, several top Pritzker administration officials refused to accept responsibility for last November’s COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home, which resulted in the deaths of 36 residents. 
Illinois’ public health director and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s deputy in charge of health care said Thursday they were misled by top state veterans affairs officials when told COVID-19 procedures were being followed that could have slowed or prevented a deadly outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home in November.

“We believed the home was following all the recommended protocols and that the appropriate steps were being taken to address the cases,” Illinois public health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said during an Illinois House hearing over a scathing inspector general’s report on the outbreak. […]

Deputy Gov. Sol Flores said VA officials showed no urgency in selecting a senior administrator to oversee health care practices at the state’s veterans homes — a post that has been vacant since the fall of 2019, a year before the outbreak. […]

“I was not aware that polices and protocols were not being followed. We were told that they were being followed,” Flores said at Thursday’s hearing. […]

Asked by Republicans what grade Flores would give Pritzker and his administration’s handling of the LaSalle outbreak, she said she would give management of the home an “F,” but would not grade herself or the administration.

“I can’t speak to that right now,” Flores said. “What I can speak to is that we are working to correct and fix everything that went wrong at LaSalle.”

That prompted Republican state Rep. Deanne Mazzochi of Elmhurst to say, “To me, a good leader doesn’t assume things are happening. A good leader actually checks to make sure that things are happening. For you to just sit there and say, ‘Oh, well, I just assumed things were happening,’ that’s a failure of leadership. I’m sorry.”

Mazzochi also noted that on Nov. 11, Pritzker appeared at a ribbon-cutting for a new veterans home in Chicago where he touted the success of the agency in combating COVID-19 in veterans homes despite what was happening at LaSalle.

“We’ve worked very hard. Our veterans homes really have done an outstanding job of keeping our veterans safe. But you can’t 100% keep everybody safe in this environment” when local officials aren’t enforcing mitigations, Pritzker said at the ribbon-cutting.

That was a day before the state public health department and the federal Veterans Affairs sent an on-site team to LaSalle, where they found lapses in protocols and the use of non-alcohol based hand sanitizer as well as staff congregating without masks.

By Nov. 9, two days before Pritzker’s statement, the home had more than 60 positive cases, and by Nov. 13, two days after his statement, 10 veterans had died.

“How could you let him make that statement with a straight face … given the nature of the briefing that you gave him internally on Nov. 9?” Mazzochi asked after Flores said she briefed Pritzker of the intensifying outbreak.

“We didn’t understand the full scope of what was happening until after Nov. 10,” Flores replied.

But she also said Pritzker had ordered the public health agency be “immediately” deployed to LaSalle on Nov. 9. They arrived three days later.

House Republicans call for criminal investigation into failures at LaSalle. On Tuesday, House Republicans called for the Illinois Attorney General to immediately open an investigation into possible criminal negligence by officials and staff involved in the deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home.

In a hearing of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Tuesday, members heard testimony from the Inspector General of the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) over a damning report on the missteps and failures at LaSalle. Committee members found that the investigation upon which the IDHS IG’s report was based had failed to talk to key officials in the troubled Department of Veterans’ Affairs, including former Director Linda Chapa LaVia, who resigned in December.

State Representative David Welter released the following statement after Tuesday’s House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on the deadly Covid-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home:

“Governor Pritzker gave false hope to the families who lost loved ones when he promised a thorough and independent investigation into what went wrong at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home. It’s not a comprehensive investigation when you exempt key participants in the state’s response as Governor Pritzker did. He owes these families an explanation on why the decisions made by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Governor’s Office were not worth looking into. This investigation – called by the Governor – was not about finding answers; it was about hiding the truth.”

On Monday, Rep. Welter spoke outside the LaSalle Veterans Home to introduce new legislation he filed, HB 4077, that would require the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Illinois Department of Public Health, upon being notified that an infectious disease outbreak has occurred, to immediately conduct an on-site visit to assess the status of the spread and determine if any additional actions can be taken to lessen exposure to the disease. Rep. Welter’s legislation is in response to the Pritzker Administration’s failure to conduct an on-site visit for nearly 11 days after the COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home in November 2020.

Illinois enters Bridge Phase of Reopening Plan. The entire state has moved into the Bridge Phase of the Restore Illinois reopening plan, effective Friday, May 14th. The Bridge Phase is the final step before the full reopening of Phase 5.

Under Bridge Phase, there are expanded capacity limits for businesses, dining, offices, events, conferences and gatherings. Barring any significant reversals in key COVID-19 statewide indicators, including increasing hospitalizations, Illinois could enter Phase 5 as soon as Friday, June 11th.

More than 10.3 million vaccine doses have been administered to Illinoisans at mass vaccination sites, local health departments, pharmacies, federally qualified health centers, mobile clinics, and other locations across the state. Doctors' offices are starting to administer vaccine to their patients. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is available to youth ages 12 through 17 years after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday accepted the recommendation from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to expand the use of the vaccine. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are authorized for those 18 years of age and older.
New CDC guidance removes mask requirement for fully vaccinated persons. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week issued a widely-publicized revision to their guidelines for facial coverings by fully vaccinated individuals. Vaccinated Americans now may go without masks in most places.

According to the CDC, if you are fully vaccinated, you can resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic. Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker says that he will revise executive orders to sync up with new CDC guidelines on mask wearing by vaccinated individuals in indoor and outdoor spaces.

The new guidelines, released Thursday, say that masks are no longer recommended for individuals who are fully vaccinated against coronavirus, paving the way for a return to normalcy as summer nears.

“I firmly believe in following the science, and will revise my executive orders in line with CDC guidelines lifting additional mitigations for vaccinated people,” Pritzker said. “The scientists’ message is clear: if you are vaccinated, you can safely do much more.”

Rep. Niemerg files legislation to end mask mandates. State Representative Adam Niemerg announced this week that he has filed two pieces of legislation to end the COVID-19 mask mandates in the Illinois House of Representatives Chamber and for students in schools.

House Bill 4080 would reverse the current House Rule that mandates all elected members, legislative staff, and visitors to the House Chambers must wear a face mask/covering at all times unless eating or drinking.

House Bill 4083 would immediately prohibit the State Board of Education, school districts, and elementary and secondary schools from requiring the teachers, students, or staff to wear a face mask due to the COVID-19 public health emergency declared by the Governor.

“People have been patient enough with all of the mixed signals about masks mandates indoors, outdoors, vaccinated, not vaccinated and it’s time to follow the real science that says we need to get back to normal activities,” said Rep Niemerg. “Those who feel they are in a compromised health situation need to be able to make the decision that is right for themselves and either socially distance and wear a mask if that is what is best for themselves.”

General Assembly budget forecasting office revises revenue estimate for approaching fiscal year. The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (CGFA) made official revisions to their March revenue estimate this week. CGFA is now reporting that the FY21 state general funds revenues (excluding any borrowing) are expected to total $43.618 billion – a $2.025 billion upward revision from just two months ago. Stronger than expected personal and corporate income taxes are the main driver of this increase.

The new revision represents an astounding $7.2 billion increase from what the State was expected to bring in last May when the FY21 budget was passed. For reference, the FY21 budget was passed assuming there would be a $6.2 billion deficit, which was expected to be closed through a combination of $5 billion in borrowing from the US Treasury, and $1.2 billion in revenue from the now failed “Fair Tax” initiative pushed by Governor Pritzker. All things considered, the FY21 budget now has an operating surplus of close to $1 billion not including any borrowing or additional revenues.

CGFA also adjusted its FY22 general revenue funds estimate upwards by $792 million compared to March’s estimate, leading to a new revenue total of $41.188 billion. This revision puts a significant dent in the $1.5 billion deficit that the Governor had identified in his FY22 spending proposal, which totaled $41.588 billion. Using the Governor’s FY22 spending proposal, and CGFA’s new revenue estimate, the deficit for FY22 now stands at $400 million. There are still several unknowns that need to be addressed before the General Assembly passes the FY22 budget including the amount of revenue the General Assembly will use to budget from, and more importantly, how the state will spend the $8.1 billion it is receiving through the recently enacted American Recovery Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA).

House Republicans again call on Gov. Pritzker to keep his promise on Fair Maps. Speaking during a press conference at the Capitol, Republican legislators again called on Governor Pritzker to stand by his prior commitments to veto a partisanly drawn legislative redistricting map and respect the process for a fair and independent map process he pledged to support.

Rep. Bourne Gives Overview of Redistricting Process & Public Hearings

Video: Rep. Spain calls on Pritzker to keep his promise on Independent Maps

Rep. Butler Calls on Pritzker to Honor Fair Maps Commitment

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