A preliminary report by the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs (IDVA) recommends replacing the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy (IVHQ) with a state-of-the-art facility and other improvements, all of which would cost the state as much as $278 million.

The report concludes that the best options for eradicating Legionella bacteria from the facility would include construction of a new residential building (approximately $250 million), replacing plumbing campus-wide (approximately $16 million), and drilling a well and buying a nearby nursing home (approximately $12 million).

A final report from the IDVA is due in May.

Dozens of IVHQ residents have contracted Legionnaires’ disease, which has claimed 13 lives at the facility since 2015. Four residents were infected with the disease earlier this year; that represents the fourth consecutive year a Legionnaires’ outbreak has hit the home.

Families of 11 of the residents who died have filed suit against the state.

Legionnaires’ disease has continued to plague the IVHQ despite the installation of a $6.4 million water filtration system in 2016. Three illnesses that year occurred after the rehabbed plant was made operational.

CDC: Eradication may not be possible

Representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) visited the IVHQ this year to review testing protocols for individuals with respiratory illness, at the request of the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH).

The CDC had warned last month in a 20-page report that the “complete eradication of Legionella in any large, complex building water system may not be possible.” The information was compiled in response to last year’s Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the IVHQ.

“There is no known safe level of Legionella in building water systems, and cases have been associated with very low levels of bacteria,” the report concluded.

Despite efforts to eliminate Legionella from the IVHQ, the ST36 strain of the bacterium has been identified in the IVHQ water system in each of the previous three years.

“It is probable that this strain persists in protective biofilm, scale, and sediment that are present in the plumbing infrastructure,” according to the CDC report.

What is Legionnaires’ disease?

Legionnaires’ disease – also called legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia – is a severe type of pneumonia or lung infection. According to the 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 the disease’s nonspecific signs and symptoms.

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

Legionnaires’ risk factors
Anyone can get Legionnaires’ 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).

Legionnaires’ sources
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:

  • hot-water tanks and heaters
  • showers and faucets
  • swimming pools
  • hot tubs and whirlpools
  • equipment used in physical therapy
  • mist machines and hand-held sprayers
  • cooling towers of air conditioning systems
  • large plumbing systems
  • water systems, such as those used in hospitals, nursing homes, and hotels
  • 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 the disease from home plumbing systems. Both of these, however, happen very rarely.