By Sarah Mansur
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs announced Monday that LaSalle Veterans’ Home Administrator Angela Mehlbrech has been fired after a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle facility has resulted in at least 32 resident deaths.
IDVA also announced that the director of nursing at the LaSalle facility, Jackie Cook, has been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the acting inspector general of the Illinois Department of Human Services.
The news of Mehlbrech’s firing comes as two separate state House committees — the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the Judiciary-Civil Committee — have initiated their own investigations and hearings into the COVID-19 related deaths at the LaSalle home.
IDVA Acting Assistant Director Anthony Vaughn will serve as the interim administrator at LaSalle until a permanent replacement is made, according to the IDVA press release.
“IDVA mourns the tragedy of the veteran heroes lost to COVID-19 at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home. We will ensure that (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and IDPH protocols are followed and full accountability occurs for any lapses in protocols,” Vaughn said in the release.
Vaughn, a 24-year veteran of the United States Marine Corps, joined IDVA upon his retirement from active duty in 2005, where he has served for the past 15 years.
As of Monday morning, 39 of the 96 current residents at LaSalle have tested positive for the virus, as well as 21 staff at the facility, Gov. JB Pritzker said Monday at his daily news conference.
“Since the moment that we found out there was an outbreak, there’s been a lot of effort that’s been made to evaluate the problems at the home and to mitigate those problems. This is another way for us to keep the people in that home safe,” Pritzker said in response to a question about the decision to fire Mehlbrech.
Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, whose district includes the LaSalle home, wrote in a statement on Monday that Mehlbrech’s firing is a step toward bringing accountability.
“While this is a step in the right direction, it does raise new questions. On what grounds was this person removed from their position? What does the Governor’s office know about their conduct that we don’t? The Governor needs to be transparent about what information led to this decision,” Rezin wrote in the statement.
“More importantly, we still haven’t gotten an answer about why it took 12 days for a site visit to take place that uncovered significant deficiencies leading to this devastating outbreak. That’s 12 days when ineffective hand sanitizer and (personal protective equipment) were in use, and ineffective infection control protocols weren’t corrected. We need answers to these critical questions.”
The coronavirus outbreak at the LaSalle facility was discovered by staff on Nov. 1, but an on-site visit from representatives with an official from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs did not take place until Nov. 12. A second on-site visit with Illinois Department of Public Health officials occurred on Nov. 17. The full reports, along with recommendations by the inspecting officials, are available online.
As of midnight on Oct. 31, there were 128 residents at the home, according to an IDVA spokesperson, meaning roughly a quarter of the residents have died since the outbreak began.
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