CHRONICLE: Emails show Rauner team focused on press reaction, not vets, after Legionnaires outbreak

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Newly released emails show that the Rauner Administration focused extensively on how the outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease at an Illinois veterans home would play out in the press. The emails show discussions among the team about how the press portrayed the management of the crisis by Rauner and his team.

Thirteen veterans died as a result of the outbreak last year, and another 4 were diagnosed just in recent weeks. Families of the veterans were outraged that the staff was more concerned with the reaction in the media rather than with helping the grieving families and protecting the other residents.

The email communication reveal that staff crafted talking points that attempted to paint the administration positively as the crisis unfolded. The emails also include discussion of a press release, to be issued six days after Rauner’s team had known that the outbreak was an “epidemic.” Dr. Robert Merrick, the head epidemiologist at Quincy’s Blessing Hospital, which treated many of the Legionnaires’ victims, criticized the phrasing of that release. “Overall I think it is poorly written, confusing and in my view just a smoke to cover peoples [sic] butts,” he said.

When cases increased in number, emails also show that Rauner’s team opted not to release them via press release, but simply chose to post them to an obscure website. “We’re being transparent, but not continuing to put this in the media’s eye,” the state public health director’s spokeswoman, Melaney Arnold, wrote.

Another email suggested the state may call in the National Guard for additional support. State Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Jeffries however, raised concerns about how that would look to the public: “We’ll have to think about the messaging for that though,” she said. “It might raise some alarm.”

Members of the Illinois General Assembly fought the administration for weeks to get access to the records. WBEZ was able to get access to some, and they are being released for the first time by the news station.

One family member expressed anger when shown emails, according to WBEZ. “What angers me the most about this situation, they’re putting all this effort into PR, giving each other pats on the back, ‘great job,’ ‘way to go team,’ ‘let’s come up with some canned statements,’ ‘let’s all be on the same page.’ Basically, it was like they drew a line in the sand and said, ‘It’s us against these grieving families,’” he said.

Four additional veterans at the home has been diagnosed in recent days, the latest in a three-year problem the administration had previously claimed to solve.

The Illinois Senate has unanimously approved a resolution calling on the Illinois Auditor General to perform an audit of Governor Bruce Rauner’s response to the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak at the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy. The vote occurred amid announcements of a third confirmed case of the disease this week.

The requested audit would examine Rauner’s management of the response to the outbreaks that started in 2015. Lawmakers argued that the audit is necessary because the Rauner administration has refused to provide requested documents that would allow them to examine whether the response was adequate.

The resolution also asks the audit to determine a timeline for what was known about the outbreak and when. It was previously revealed the Rauner Administration waited six days to disclose what they knew was the beginning of a major outbreak, an action a public health expert called “inexcusable” and “mind-boggling.”

U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, both Democrats, have also called on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to play a more active role in the investigation and control of the outbreaks.

“Despite their assertions otherwise, it has become abundantly clear that Illinois’ current administration has failed to adequately address this crisis in a timely fashion. As a result, the lives of veterans living at IVH Quincy — not to mention staff working at the facility and families visiting the facility — have either been put at risk, or lost,” they wrote to Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC acting director, according to the Quincy Herald-Whig.

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