Surge in La. cases expected as more test results come in
BY BRYN STOLE
Louisiana's tally of known coronavirus cases is beginning to show a spike that will accelerate as the results of thousands of pending tests sent to commercial labs begin coming in, a top hospital executive said Friday.
Test results announced by the Louisiana Department of Health on Friday included for the first time a count of commercial tests in addition to those handled by the state lab. It showed that 847 of the 1,931 tests now complete - or nearly half - were done by private labs, which as of just a few days ago had hardly handled any tests in the state.
In a related development, the percentage of completed tests that were positive fell off noticeably. In the early days of the virus, when all tests were being done at Louisiana's state lab, tests were reserved for the sickest patients, and roughly 35% of those tested were positive. On Friday, the overall rate had fallen to 28% and will probably fall further as less-ill people are screened.
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Testing still isn't nearly as robust as it is in some other states, however, and several Louisiana hospitals are now working to process coronavirus tests at in-house labs. That would both speed results and dramatically expand the state's limited testing capacity.
As of Friday, doctors in the Ochsner Health System alone were still awaiting coronavirus test results from commercial labs for 2,200 patients - more than the total number tested in the state since the epidemic broke out nearly two weeks ago - Ochsner CEO Warner Thomas told reporters Friday morning.
The Ochsner figures provide a hint at the scale of commercial testing that's rolled out over the past week in Louisiana. That has allowed doctors to order tests for growing numbers of patients, slowly easing strict criteria that limited scarce tests to very sick people.
But the expected surge may not happen overnight: Commercial testing firms like Lab-Corp or Quest Diagnostics have generally taken significantly longer to deliver test results - anywhere from five to eight days - than the state lab, which generally turns around tests in less than 48 hours.
Ochsner hospitals across the state are treating about 90 people with confirmed cases of the coronavirus. Test results are still pending for another 350 people being treated in isolation at Ochsner facilities for serious symptoms of what's believed to be the coronavirus, according to Ochsner officials.
If those 350 Ochsner patients all tested positive, it would increase Louisiana's count of known coronavirus patients by two-thirds.
In-house tests at hospital labs could significantly speed up the phlegmatic process - delivering results within about 24 to 48 hours, like the state lab - and provide a major boost to Louisiana's coronavirus testing capacity.
Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans expects to begin processing up to 800 coronavirus tests a day in-house by the end of the weekend, Thomas said. That could grow to nearly 1,500 daily next week, Thomas said, once new machines arrive at Ochsner labs in New Orleans and Shreveport.
The nonprofit Ochsner Health System runs health care facilities across the state.
Other medical institutions and hospitals are also working to handle coronavirus tests in their labs. But challenges remain.
''We are trying to gear up to do testing, as are others in the area and LSU Health Shreveport to support the need,'' said Leslie Capo, spokeswoman for LSU Health New Orleans. ''As you can imagine, there are shortages of the necessary equipment and supplies.''
But there remained plenty of frustration over continuing limitations on Louisiana's testing capabilities, which experts have said are likely capturing only a fraction of coronavirus cases in the state.
Together Louisiana, an advocacy group made up largely of clergy, called on the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prioritize testing for New Orleans, a hotbed of the epidemic that's home to most of the state's known cases.
Broderick Bagert, an organizer with the group, noted that even with limited testing, the rate of known cases and deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, in New Orleans makes the city one of the worst-hit areas of the country.
Resources - including testing capabilities - need to be steered to parts of the country battling the worst of the epidemic, including New Orleans, said Rev. Sheron Jackson, a Shreveport minister who's active in the group.
''Direct test capacity to the areas facing the worst outbreaks,'' said Jackson. ''I don't think the outbreak is the most severe in the NBA or the NFL.''
Although the state's strict eligibility criteria for coronavirus testing may ease, state and hospital officials said only those with coronavirus-like symptoms should seek testing.
That's because tests are far less likely to detect the coronavirus in people who don't have a fever and other symptoms, according to Thomas.
''The challenge here is that, if you're not showing symptoms, many times you won't test positive for the virus, even if you have it,'' said Thomas.
Kevin Litten, a Louisiana Department of Health spokesman, said limiting tests to the feverishly ill is also a strategy ''designed to make sure there are testing supplies for those who most need it.''
Health care personnel screen people for flu and the coronavirus Wednesday at a drive-thru station set up in Lafayette.
STAFF PHOTO BY LESLIE WESTBROOK