Newly released emails from the Illinois governor’s office illustrate how state officials worked to control the release of information to the public during the 2015 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy (IVHQ).

The state conceded that the first news release confirming eight cases of Legionnaires’ disease at IVHQ in August 2015 did not occur until six days after officials realized they were dealing with an “epidemic.”

In all, 12 people died and 53 others were sickened during the 2015 outbreak.

The state is currently battling an outbreak at the veterans home for the fourth consecutive year after four residents were sickened with Legionnaires’ in February. There were six confirmed illnesses due to the deadly infection in 2017, including the 13th death since 2015.

The released emails include exchanges between state and local public health officials and the state agency – the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs (IDVA) – that oversees the IVHQ.

In one of the email threads, a spokesperson for the IDVA wrote “there is no cause for alarm.” In another, Robert Merrick, an epidemiologist at Blessing Hospital in Quincy, described a draft of the news release as “smoke to cover people’s butts.”

Governor Bruce Rauner’s staff attempted to keep the messages secret, denying open records act requests from Chicago’s WBEZ Radio, which was the first to receive the emails upon their eventual release.

WBEZ was also the first to report last year that 11 families are suing the state of Illinois for negligence, asserting that the deaths at the home were preventable.

Rauner, a Republican seeking a second term this year, defends his administration’s handling of the crisis, going so far as to say he “wouldn’t have done anything differently.”

Rauner’s opponents say the emails show his administration was more concerned with perception – in both the media and by the public – than they were about finding a solution and repairing the predicament.

In related Illinois news:

Governor aide to oversee Legionnaires’ response
On Friday, Gov. Rauner named Michael Hoffman as his senior advisor with operational oversight of the IVHQ to address the ongoing health crisis at the facility. Hoffman, who is a retired Marine officer, is the acting director of the Illinois Department of Central Management Services (CMS).

Dave MacDonna, Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs public information officer, said Hoffman will have “operational oversight of the Legionella eradication effort.” Hoffman’s appointment does not change the responsibilities of IVHQ administrator Troy Culbertson or Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Jeffries.

Before Hoffman’s service in state government, he spent more than 15 years on active duty as a Marine Corps infantry officer. During his military service, he served in Iraq and Afghanistan and was awarded two Bronze Stars, one for valor in combat. He has been acting head of CMS since January 2016.

Legionnaires' disease
Legionella bacteria

What is Legionnaires’ disease? 

Legionnaires’ disease – also called Legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia – is a severe type of pneumonia or lung infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 25,000 cases of pneumonia due to Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) occur each year, but only 5,000 cases are reported because of its nonspecific signs and symptoms.

Ten percent of those who become infected with Legionnaires’ disease will die from the infection.

How do you contract Legionnaires’?
Legionella bacteria are contracted by inhaling microscopic water droplets, usually in the form of mist or vapor. The bacteria, which grow best in warm water, are found primarily in human-made environments.

Outbreaks have been linked to a number of sources, including:

  • the cooling towers of air conditioning systems
  • large plumbing systems
  • water systems such as those used in hospitals, nursing homes, and hotels
  • hot tubs and whirlpools
  • equipment used in physical therapy
  • mist machines and hand-held sprayers
  • hot water tanks and heaters
  • showers and faucets
  • swimming pools
  • decorative fountains.

People also can contract Legionnaires’ disease when they “aspirate” contaminated drinking water – that is, choking or coughing while drinking can cause water to go down the wrong pipe into the lungs.

It is also possible to contract Legionnaires’ disease from home plumbing systems, although the vast majority of outbreaks have occurred in large buildings because complex systems amplify the conditions for bacteria to grow and spread more easily.

Who is most at risk for infection?
Anyone can get the disease, but those most susceptible to infection include:

  • people 50 years of age or older
  • smokers, current and former
  • heavy drinkers of alcoholic beverages
  • people with chronic lung disease
  • people with compromised immune systems
  • recipients of organ transplants
  • individuals who are on specific drug protocols (corticosteroids, to name one).