State officials in Illinois have launched an investigation into a coronavirus outbreak at a veterans’ nursing home that has infected 200 of its residents and staff, killing 27 of them.

The Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, or IDVA, ordered an independent review on Tuesday of the State Veterans Home at LaSalle, roughly 90 miles southwest of Chicago. State and federal officials visited the facility on Nov. 13 and determined it had failed to take certain coronavirus safety measures as the virus surges.

Those failures included the facility primarily using an alcohol-free hand sanitizer found to be ineffective against COVID-19. Staff members were also seen touching patients and multiple surfaces without changing their gloves or performing hand hygiene, according to reports shared by the IDVA.

The Office of Inspector General for Illinois’ health department has been tapped to investigate a deadly coronavirus outbreak at an Illinois veterans nursing home.

The IDVA said it is implementing all the recommendations contained in reports from the Illinois Department of Public Health and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs at all four of the state’s veterans homes. This includes replacing the hand sanitizer with a more effective product, retraining staff on mask requirements and strengthening the health screening process for employees.

The Office of Inspector General for the state’s health department will carry out an investigation that focuses on “uncovering any lapses in protocol and employee compliance with rules, which will enable IDVA to ensure best practices moving forward,” IDVA’s office said in a statement.

“These brave men and women sacrificed everything fighting for the freedoms we so often take for granted. It is our moral obligation to care for them just as they have cared for us,” said IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia, who promised full transparency in officials’ review.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office has also opened an investigation into how the outbreak started, according to local media.

As of Tuesday, 105 residents and 95 employees at the LaSalle facility have tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic. Of those infected, 38 residents and 76 staff have recovered, according to IDVA. 

Daily coronavirus cases and deaths had been generally trending downward nationally since this summer, with the exception of the Midwest, where the situation has only worsened due to relaxed safety measures and people congregating inside as temperatures drop. Illinois reported 11,378 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, pushing the state’s total since the pandemic began to more than 10 million.

LaVia, who testified Tuesday at a hearing of the state Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee, said COVID-19 cases at the LaSalle facility rose at the same time that cases in the surrounding community rose. She credited the facility’s staff and administration for having lower case counts compared to other long-term care facilities throughout the state during the pandemic’s first eight months.

In a statement Tuesday, Dr. Ngozi Ezike of the Illinois Department of Public Health stressed the need for decreasing community spread in order to protect vulnerable populations at these long-term care facilities. 

“Health care workers can be exposed to COVID-19 while away from work and then inadvertently introduce the virus into the facility. We can all help protect our honored heroes in our Veterans’ homes by decreasing the amount of virus circulating in our communities by staying home as much as possible, wearing our masks, and watching our distance,” she said.

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