Louisiana’s largest healthcare provider scales back community COVID-19 testing

Ochsner Health says it needs to preserve testing capacity for its patients

Doctor taking a swab sample. (Stock photo by Mladen Sladojevic/Getty Images)

Ochsner Health, Louisiana’s largest healthcare provider, will put new limitations on its community testing program for COVID-19 even as state health officials warn about a surge in new infections.

The hospital system needs to preserve its testing capacity for hospital patients, said Dr. Sandra Kemmerly, the system medical director of hospital quality, in an interview Wednesday (July 1).

Ochsner will no longer test people for COVID-19 at its urgent care centers and emergency rooms if they don’t have symptoms of the viral infection. It is also limiting access at its community testing sites in southeastern Louisiana to 150 tests per location per day. In recent weeks, Ochsner had been going through hundreds of tests per day at some of those places, Kemmerly said.

“We look at our inventory on-hand every day. We’ve been watching that very carefully,” said Kemmerly, who specializes in infectious diseases. “It became apparent we were not going to be able to keep up with unlimited demand.” 

“The reality is the supply and demand don’t equal each other at this time,” she said.

Ochsner has facilities in nearly every region of the state including New Orleans, Houma, the Northshore, Baton Rouge, Monroe and Shreveport. It’s also partnered with — and is eventually expected to merge with — Lafayette General Health in Acadiana. The only place Ochsner doesn’t have a major presence is in the Alexandria area in central Louisiana.

Kemmerly said there is a worldwide shortage of swabs and other materials needed to test for COVID-19 coronavirus test. Staff and lab equipment must also be available. Every single patient in the hospital must be tested — whether they are admitted for coronavirus or not — leaving a more limited supply for the general public, particularly people who are asymptomatic.

Ochsner has been running about 16 community testing sites at locations around the state. Those available this week included sites in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Metairie, Mandeville and Shreveport. Their exact location can move from day-to-day, but they are often set up at schools, community centers and government buildings.  People can walk up and receive a test at no charge. They can also be asymptomatic.

These community test sites — run by Ochsner and others — have become very popular in recent weeks. In some areas, they are attracting long lines and are having to close earlier than expected after running out of testing kits. The demand for testing at these sites has also gone up as Louisiana’s coronavirus cases have started to rise again.

“My guess is that once COVID starts being active in a community, the desire to be tested and to know your status becomes greater,” Kemmerly said.

Ochsner is not the only entity that imposes restrictions on testing. LCMC Health caps testing at its community sites in New Orleans to 250 tests per day. Baton Rouge General said it requires all people who get tested at its facilities to have an order from a doctor or other medical personnel.

Louisiana  far surpassed its June testing goals. The state had hoped to see 200,000 people tested for coronavirus last month. Instead, 385,000 people were tested, according to Gov. John Bel Edwards.

While Oschner is scaling back its efforts this week, community testing is still expected to rapidly expand in the Baton Rouge area, where there has been an alarming outbreak in cases. East Baton Rouge Parish has seen 1,000 new coronavirus cases over the last 11 days, a 17 percent increase in the parish’s total cases since the outbreak started, Mayor Sharon Weston Broome said Wednesday.

Edwards and Broome announced Wednesday that because of the outbreak, there will be four new testing sites opening in Baton Rouge Tuesday. The staff at those four locations are expected to conduct an additional 5,000 coronavirus tests per day. The effort is being undertaken with the support of the White House coronavirus task force, the governor said.

“We want as many people to get tested as possible,” Edwards said. “It obviously is a challenge to continue to grow our testing at the rate that we have … but no one should give up.”