February 08, 2018

AFSCME testifies on Quincy crisis

After three years of Legionnaires disease outbreaks due to persistent presence of the Legionella bacteria in the Quincy Veterans’ Home water system, 13 residents have lost their lives and numerous residents and employees have also been stricken with the disease.

Gov. Rauner’s Administration has been under public fire for mismanagement of the situation, especially as the state failed to notify families and workers in a timely manner.

Lawmakers demanded an inquiry into the matter. AFSCME Local 1787 President Nettie Smith and Council 31 Policy Director Anne Irving testified on behalf of the nearly 350 dedicated AFSCME members at the home at a February 7 Joint Hearing of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees regarding the crisis. AFSCME had also previously submitted written testimony to the committees on January 9.

Lack of communication, transparency

Irving’s testimony reiterated the union’s frustration with the harmful lack of transparency from the Rauner Administration during the crisis. AFSCME found out about the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease—in all three instances—through media reports and some employees at the home did as well.

Moreover, in 2015, despite the obvious impact the disease was having on employees, AFSCME had to seek information from the CDC and the Adams County Health Department because both the Illinois Departments of Public Health and Veterans Affairs were largely unresponsive to phone calls and written requests for information. The Rauner administration has consistently ignored all efforts by AFSCME members to provide input on addressing the problem.

Irving also stressed the need for adequate staff to perform the extra work—taking vitals more frequently, flushing water lines—necessary to address the crisis.

AFSCME member testifies

AFSCME Local 1787 President Nettie Smith testified about her experience of the 2015 Legionella outbreak as an LPN at the veterans’ home. Here is her testimony in full:

“My name is Nettie Smith. I am the president of AFSCME Local 1787. I also have been an LPN at Quincy Veterans Home since 1993. I, and my co-workers, are very proud to work at the Quincy Veterans Home, founded in 1886 on 210 beautiful acres. Not only is the history of the Quincy Veterans Home remarkable, but also caring for veterans is rewarding and a great honor. My co-workers and I are saddened by the Legionella outbreak, and what it has caused.

"Today, I want to focus on how the Department of Veterans Affairs can do better at communicating with staff about Legionella, as well as what the delayed communication meant to my co-workers and I when information wasn't shared in 2015.

"In 2015, I learned about the Legionella outbreak on Facebook, when an employee shared a post from our local news station. Not long after, my supervisor said she wanted us to know we had some cases of Legionella and there’d be an article in the news about it that evening. Management held an 'all staff' meeting on August 26, 2015, informing staff of the Legionella outbreak. These meetings are not truly all staff meetings, as some staff have to stay back to take care of the residents and some aren’t working that day or during that shift when the meeting is held.

"It's also important to note that at Quincy Veterans Home most of the staff—VNACs, dietary, housekeeping, etc. —don’t have email. We still rely on charge nurses and supervisors to spread information by word-of-mouth, making it quite possible for employees to remain uninformed. As soon as they had one confirmed case of Legionella, which happened in early August, the Superintendent should have sent a physical letter to all staff and posted that letter in the worksites.

"Because information wasn’t shared quickly and efficiently, one of my co-workers got sicker than she should have from Legionnaires’ disease. I am not going to share her name today out of respect for her privacy, but I am going to tell her story.

"On August 15, 2015, my co-worker left work ill, returning August 24th. During the time she was off, she was misdiagnosed twice, prescribed three different antibiotics, and had a 24-hour stay in the hospital because her symptoms were not responding to treatment. She had high fever, and was experiencing shortness of breath. After her return, and a discussion about her symptoms, I suggested that maybe she had Legionella. The CDC spoke with her that day, and suggested she have testing, which came back positive for Legionnaire’s Disease.

"Because she had been out sick, with no information from Quincy Veterans Home, she had no knowledge of the outbreak. We wonder if she had known about the Legionella outbreak, if the Department of Veterans Affairs had immediately notified staff when the first outbreak occurred, would she would have been so sick for so long?

"We’ve changed facility management since that time. The current Superintendent and DON are more forthcoming with information. We will soon have union representation on a safety committee so we can stay better informed. Our facility is spread out, making it hard to communicate with all staff. We can do better.

"With the current CDC recommendations for temperature checks on every resident every four hours and so on, we need to be fully staffed. Currently, we have 26 VNAC and 16 LPN vacancies. The CMS grading process alone is taking four to six weeks. We need to do better to provide the best possible care for our veterans. We can do better.

"Our local union is ready to do more to make the Quincy Veterans Home a better place to live and work. Thank you for your time.”

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