FILE - Linda Chapa LaVia, Illinois

Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, speaks after Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a law Tuesday, July 17, 2018, in Springfield, Ill., to speed up reconstruction of the troubled state-run veterans' home in Quincy, Ill. The Republican governor approved the legislation to consolidate the design and building processes under state law to save time in overhauling the western Illinois campus where 13 people have died since 2015 because of Legionnaires' disease, although groundbreaking is a year away. Chapa LaVia blamed Rauner for what detractors say was a slow response to the outbreak of the pneumonia-like malady. (AP Photo by John O'Connor)

(The Center Square) – In the wake of a coronavirus outbreak at an Illinois veterans home which resulted in 36 deaths, Illinois Department of Veteran’s Affairs Director Linda Chapa LaVia is stepping down from her role.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Monday that Major General Peter Nezamis, assistant adjutant general in the Illinois National Guard will serve as interim director.

“It’s been an honor and a privilege to serve our veterans,” LaVia said in a statement. “I’m proud of our accomplishments and I look forward to assisting the interim director in any way possible as the department continues to work to serve our heroes.”

LaVia was in the hot seat Monday over the COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans' Home.

The virus was detected at the home on November 1. It took 12 days for the Illinois Department of Public Health to visit the facility.

A federal veteran’s affairs report listed numerous violations of COVID-19 protocols at the home, including ineffective face coverings and hand sanitizer, lax employee screening, poor ventilation, and employees gathering offsite while not wearing masks and disregarding social distancing rules.

During questioning by the House Civil Judiciary Committee, chairperson Andre Thapedi was not happy with the answers he was getting from LaVia.

“We are not getting answers and it is getting a little frustrating,” Thapedi said. “These are very direct questions, they are very simple questions. This is a fact-based investigation and we are being stonewalled.”

LaSalle County Veterans Assistance Commission Superintendent Steven Kreitzer was among 16 veterans organization and agency leaders from around the state that had asked for LaVia to step down.

State Rep. Randy Frese told LaVia he was aware of the harsh words directed at her regarding the handling of the outbreak.

“I don’t want to direct any harsh words towards you, but I can’t detract from the devastation that’s occurred in LaSalle and continues to go on at the other veterans' homes,” Frese said. “So director please, continue to do whatever you can and if you find that you cannot, please find someone who can.”

IDPH visited the LaSalle Veterans' Home in December to review the preventative practices in place, and the facility was found to be compliant with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Since mid-December, National Guard members have been assisting staff members with COVID-19 administrative tasks at the LaSalle, Quincy and Manteno veterans' homes.

The committee has asked for more documentation from administrators in LaSalle and will reconvene at a later date.

“Our veterans have sacrificed so much for our freedom and this administration will continue to do everything possible to prioritize their care,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement. “I’m grateful to Linda for her service and wish her well on her next chapter."

LaVia's departure was a mutual decision, Pritzker said at a news conference Monday afternoon.

Staff Reporter

Kevin Bessler reports on statewide issues in Illinois for the Center Square. He has over 30 years of experience in radio news reporting throughout the Midwest.