State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, is stepping up her calls for an investigation into why COVID-19 is surging through the Illinois Veterans Home at La Salle.

On Friday, Rezin posted a letter to local veterans in which she acknowledged a statewide surge in COVID-19 but that it does not explain “a significant COVID-19 outbreak” at the La Salle facility.

“To date, this outbreak, which began around Nov. 1, has resulted in the deaths of 21 veterans and 189 total positive cases,” Rezin said in the letter. “Of those 189 positive cases, 96 are residents at the home.”

And the deaths from complications related to COVID-19 have risen, since those words were penned two days before. As of Friday, there were 26 dead, with two more recently hospitalized, according to a source previously granted anonymity. There are 111 residents in the veterans home, according to state officials, meaning 23.4% or roughly 1 in 5 residents have died from COVID-19 complications during this outbreak.

Rezin said she wrote to the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs “demanding a thorough and transparent investigation” and also has “called for a public hearing where this aggressive outbreak can be properly vetted.”

The IDVA issued a short response: “Keeping veterans safe is our top priority. As such, we are committed to full transparency with families, stakeholders and the general public. We are looking forward to appearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee next week and continuing to work closely with legislators as we move forward.”

A number of GOP state representatives on the House Veterans Affairs Committee have called for a hearing on the matter, and Veterans Affairs Committee chairwoman Stephanie Kifowit, D-Aurora, has questioned publicly why the outbreak was so sudden.

The IDVA still has not responded to a series of questions from Shaw Media submitted Nov. 13 trying to confirm internal reports of unreliable test results and gaps in infection controls.

Whatever the explanation, the surge happened abruptly, according to emails obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. The La Salle County Health Department released correspondence with the Veterans Home and a Nov. 11 email that indicated the surge began Oct. 27. Weekly tests of residents were implemented Nov. 2, emails showed, and there were seven deaths in just over two weeks.

“The outbreak is large and came on rather quickly,” wrote Karen Trimberger, an infection control consultant affiliated with the Illinois Department of Public Health.

None of the emails indicated a lapse in infection controls. The correspondence did, however, corroborate reports of a breakdown in trust and communication between union workers and management with respect to infection control.

One of the emails released contained an excerpt of an informal complaint submitted by a worker whose name and position could not be ascertained from the document’s release.

“I was wondering if there’s any truth in this stating they will not inform us of any COVID cases in the building,” the worker wrote, adding that workers were told “NOT to wear masks as they scare the residents.”

A follow-up email spelled out the response: “Employers are not required to release the name of any person who has tested positive for COVID-19. Employers are required to notify an employee if they have been identified as a direct close contact of a confirmed case and advise that employee to take the proper precautions to protect themselves. You would only need to wear a mask or other PPE when taking care of someone that is in isolation that need the appropriate precautions.”

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