By Ally Kadlubar and Paul Braun
Louisiana’s first drive-through coronavirus testing clinic is now open at Baton Rouge General’s Mid-City Campus, as of 1 p.m. Monday.
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome announced the opening in a press conference Monday morning.
Broome said that only patients who have an order from their health care provider are eligible for testing. Testing centers are expected to be open from 1 to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Patients will only be tested if they exhibit respiratory symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and have tested negative for the flu.
Samples will be collected on-site by health care professionals from various area hospitals and sent to LabCorp for processing. Broome said results would be returned in “three to four business days.”
Broome pressed the seriousness of the situation, though there are zero confirmed cases in East Baton Rouge Parish as of Monday morning, saying that things can change “from moment to moment.”
As of Monday afternoon, the Louisiana Department of Health has identified 132 COVID-19 cases across 10 parishes. The high concentration of cases in Orleans Parish has rocked the area health care system and necessitated aggressive social distancing measures.
Broome confirmed that COVID-19 tests have been performed in the Baton Rouge area by the Louisiana Department of Health and commercial labs, but was unable to say how many.
Broome and local health care officials say standing up a drive-through COVID-19 testing station in a centralized location is a part of the long-term strategy for fighting coronavirus in East Baton Rouge Parish.
Dr. Catherine Smith O’Neal, an infectious disease specialist from the Our Lady of the Lake Health System, outpatient facilities had scaled up testing efforts once commercial tests were made available last week. The CDC and LDH issued broader testing criteria for commercial tests than for tests performed by state health labs.
She says opening this drive-through facility will limit the strain on outpatient clinics.
“Our concern was that we were pushing testing to the outpatient area, and they weren’t prepared to do that testing in their office,” O’Neal said.
Jared Hymowitz, Director of the Mayor’s Healthy City Initiative, said testing protocols and the realities of practicing medicine in an outpatient clinic required health care providers to use large quantities of scarce personal protective equipment, or PPEs.
When doctors encounter a potential COVID-19 patient in their clinic, they are required to don protective gowns, masks and face shields when they collect a sample for a flu test. The doctor would then remove the protective equipment to see other patients during the 15 minutes it takes to process that test. If the test comes back negative, the doctor would then put all of that equipment back on to collect a sample for a COVID-19 test, Hymowitz said.
Testing at outpatient facilities is likely to continue, but Hymowitz says setting up the drive-through center is a way for the city-parish to increase testing capacity without a significantly increasing the rate at which health care providers consume PPEs.
“That allows our clinics not to use so many masks and gowns and gloves to test these people in their own clinic,” O’Neal said. “So, by pulling that to one centered place we’re protecting our health care workers, we’re preserving our PPE for people working in our hospitals and overall being safer for our patients.”
The mayor also stressed the seriousness of the ban of large gatherings, and will be sending the Baton Rouge Police Department to disperse large parties or gatherings.
Shortly after Broome’s press conference, Governor John Bel Edwards announced the statewide closure of bars and the limitation of restaurants to take-out and drive-through service until April 13.
With stores struggling to keep their shelves stocked, Broome addressed the panic and fear in the East Baton Rouge community.
“Remember your neighbor as you stock up,” she advised. “React responsibly and remember others. We can’t take it lightly, we have to take it seriously.”
People experiencing COVID-19 who do not have a primary care physician are encouraged to call 211 for guidance.
Additional Information about the community testing center for COVID-19 in Baton Rouge can be found here.