The Tragedy and Politics of the Legionnaires’ Outbreak in Illinois

The disease has claimed 13 veterans’ lives since 2015 and may effect the governor’s reelection chances this year.
by | January 25, 2018
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (AP)

Last month, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner decamped from the Governor’s Mansion for a week and stayed instead at a home for retired veterans in Quincy. The impetus was an outbreak at the facility of Legionnaires’ disease, which has claimed 13 lives there since 2015. Rauner wanted to ensure the problem was being properly addressed. The headlines have been hurting his reelection chances.

Now it appears the disease may hit closer to home.

On Monday, employees at the Illinois Capitol were warned to use as little water as possible, since preliminary test results indicated that the disease may be present in the building.

The bacteria Legionella grows in warm water -- often breeding in old pipes -- and can cause a form of pneumonia. While there’s been an increased incidence of the disease nationwide, Legionnaires’ still receives relatively little attention from medical researchers. That’s in part because it’s hard to tell if a patient has Legionnaires’, as opposed to a more common form of pneumonia, unless microbiological tests are performed. That rarely happens, even in hospitals.

Illinois has spent more than $6 million upgrading the water treatment system that serves the veterans’ home. State officials have also increased testing regimens. In December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report saying that steps taken by the state, including chemical water treatments, aerators on showers and cleaning out faucets, have helped reduce incidence of the disease at the facility. But the researchers found that it was still present in one sample taken there. In response, the state has acted further, including installing better filters on showers.

Nonetheless, the CDC report hinted at the possibility that the disease might never be eradicated from the veterans’ home. That’s led to talk of closing down the campus and starting fresh, but that may be too expensive for a state that’s strapped for funds.

Given the recurrence of the disease in each of the last three years -- and a lawsuit accusing the state of negligence and tardiness in responding to it -- health officials with the Rauner administration have been subject to grillings and calls for resignation from lawmakers.

The tragedy is also affecting Rauner’s already difficult reelection campaign. Questions about management and infrastructure are not helpful for a governor considered among the nation’s most vulnerable. Rauner, a Republican, campaigned as a change agent, but years of budget problems and fresh evidence that state facilities are falling apart open him up to political charges of ineffectiveness.

The potential for Legionnaires' at the Capitol comes not only in the wake of the problems at the veterans’ home but also at a time when the state is facing the possibility that the roof of a major building at the state fairgrounds may collapse. That follows the closure of a separate building there in 2016.

“The budget crisis was so extreme for so long, and was the same message over and over again for two years,” says Christopher Z. Mooney, a professor of state politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Now, here comes this new piece of information that fits right into that image of government dysfunction, that things are just out of control.”

*This originally appeared in the February issue of the print magazine.