Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration has faced a barrage of criticism for its response to a series of deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at the state-run veterans home in downstate Quincy.
Speaking last week to a group of state employees and lawmakers about the state budget in downstate Marion, Rauner tied extreme weather conditions in 2015 to the outbreak that killed 12 Quincy Veterans’ Home residents that year and sickened dozens of others. Subsequent Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the home sickened more residents.
“In 2015, we had massive floods and tornadoes,” the governor said. “The Mississippi River got a bunch of flooded water into it, a lot of dirt, and a whole bunch of Legionella bacteria, which are nasty water bugs … The Mississippi River is where the Quincy Veterans’ Home gets its water. And bacteria got in all the old plumbing and we’ve been treating it and heating it and filtering it and you can’t get rid of all the bacteria, so now we’ve got to rebuild it.”
Rauner has been on the defensive over the Quincy situation ever since WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station, disclosed late last year that his administration kept residents of the home as well as the public in the dark for several days after that 2015 outbreak was first detected.
The flood theory isn’t the first time Rauner has sought to deflect blame for the deaths on to an Act of God out of his control. And that raises two complementary questions we thought worth checking out: Could he be right? And if he is, so what?
Election year blame game
The Quincy story continues to unfold against the backdrop of a heated election battle between Republican Rauner and Democrat J.B. Pritzker, so it stands to reason that the incumbent would be sensitive to allegations of fatally dropping the ball.
Early this spring, we rated as Mostly False a claim by Pritzker seeking to connect a recent outbreak at Quincy of stomach flu-like norovirus with the earlier Legionnaires’ problems.
A few months earlier, we rated as Half True an attempt by Rauner to explain away the Legionnaires’ problems at Quincy by stressing that the bacteria lurks in most Illinois water systems. Experts said such contamination usually presents no threat unless water systems are poorly maintained.
Rauner’s argument about floods and tornadoes comes in the same spirit as his water systems comment, but experts say it is even less grounded in fact.
WBEZ followed up by reporting that neither Rauner nor his public health administration were able to cite any analyses directly linking flooding to the outbreaks, which returned in 2016, 2017 and again this year.
An array of experts, including federal health officials investigating the Quincy situation, also did not back up any flooding connection to the veterans’ home problems.
So we asked Rauner’s office for any further evidence. We also sought an explanation for why attempting to pinpoint a cause for the initial outbreak mitigated criticism of how the administration handled the crisis once it was discovered.
Spokeswoman Rachel Bold said the administration is exploring various theories for both the cause of, and remedy to, the outbreaks, and pointed to several studies on the correlation between increased rainfall and a heightened risk of Legionnaires’ disease. But she did not address our second question about the relevance of raising the flooding issue.
Which underscores a different, and likely more important, point.
Former President George W. Bush clearly was powerless to stop Hurricane Katrina from slamming into New Orleans in 2005. The problem for Bush was how slowly his administration reacted to a tragedy with broad and fatal consequences once winds subsided and the devastation became clear.
Similarly, not even Rauner’s harshest critics have suggested he could have prevented the initial Legionnaires’ outbreak in 2015. But lawmakers from both parties and political opponents have blasted his administration for delays in responding to the crisis and possibly making it worse.
Rauner vehemently disagrees, and it’s not our purpose here to weigh in on who is right or wrong on that score. What is significant, however, is whether the trigger for the outbreak in any way affected the response, and the governor has provided no evidence for that being the case.
While speaking to state employees and lawmakers about Illinois’ budgetary priorities, Rauner claimed “massive floods” led to a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that hit the Quincy Veterans’ Home during his first year in office.
His administration was unable to cite any analysis specific to Quincy to demonstrate that link, and federal health experts who have investigated the Quincy situation have made no such connection, either.
More to the point, criticism of the governor in respect to Quincy centers not on what led to the initial Legionnaires’ outbreak but how slow his administration was to respond while seniors were sickened and many died. The governor’s statement appears to be an effort to deflect blame.
Rauner’s Act-of-God claims about the source of Legionnaires’ are unverified and off-point. For that, we rate his statement False.