VA Employees Worked in COVID-19 Units After Contracting Virus Themselves, Facility Says

An official at the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs said Wednesday that some employees at a facility in LaSalle continued working in COVID-19 units after testing positive for the virus themselves.

A spokesperson for the state's Department of Veterans' Affairs said the few employees who did choose to continue working were already assigned to COVID-19 areas at the facility at the time they received their positive test results. Those employees were also isolated from all other facility staff members and residents, according to Bridget Dooley, the department's public information officer.

Department officials discussed the status of the novel coronavirus at the LaSalle Veterans' Home—which was identified last month as the site of a virus outbreak—during an Illinois House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing. By Thursday, a total of 103 staff members and 108 residents had tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, Dooley told Newsweek.

Taking into account the staff members and residents who already recovered from the virus, Dooley said one employee and 16 residents were positive at the facility as of Thursday morning. No staff members died after contracting COVID-19, but 33 veterans had died after testing positive since the start of the pandemic.

VA testing site
An official at the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs said Wednesday that some employees at a VA facility in LaSalle, Illinois, continued working in COVID-19 units after testing positive for the virus. In the photo above, a healthcare worker at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center waits outside a surge tent to receive his COVID-19 vaccination on December 16, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. Nathan Howard/Getty

The outbreak at LaSalle began when a resident tested positive for the virus on November 1 during a hospital visit for an unrelated health issue, according to an Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs news release. Two days later, officials said the results of a COVID-19 screening conducted at the end of October identified 24 positive tests, 22 of which were among facility residents. The outbreak continued spreading in the days that followed, with the first three COVID-19 deaths among veterans occurring on November 8.

State legislators began holding hearings regarding the LaSalle outbreak in late November. During Thursday's hours-long hearing, officials with the state's Veterans' Affairs Department told lawmakers that some employees who were already working within the facility's COVID-19 areas chose to continue working after they tested positive.

"No staff member was required to work after they tested positive," Tony Kolbeck, the department's chief of staff, said. "There were instances in which some employees ended up working—but again, none were required to."

One lawmaker asked Kolbeck if employees felt pressured to continue working due to federal and state staffing ratio requirements.

"There were occasions in the overnight shift in which an individual was alerted that they were positive. They were in the COVID unit already, they were asymptomatic, and they chose to stay the rest of the shift," Kolbeck said. "If they had not, there may have been a concern about the proper staff being there in that overnight shift."

Kolbeck went on to say that he was unaware of any employee complaints made regarding the handling of the virus at the LaSalle facility prior to the November outbreak. Two complaints have been filed since the outbreak began, he said.

The acting inspector general of the Illinois Department of Human Services began an investigation into the outbreak, which led to the firing of the administrator of the LaSalle facility. The facility's director of nursing was also put on administrative leave as a result of the investigation, the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs announced earlier this month.

The outbreak at the LaSalle facility began as COVID-19 cases were on the rise across the U.S. According to a Johns Hopkins University data tracker, the U.S. had more than 17.1 million COVID-19 cases reported since the start of the pandemic by Thursday, December 17, with more than 309,000 virus-related deaths. More than 5,500 residents of VA facilities across the U.S. have died after contracting the disease, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs data.