Department of Health still shy 630 employees to affect proper contact tracing testing

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BATON ROUGE, La. (The Livingston Parish News) – One of the most important measures of reopening the economy will be testing to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to state and federal officials.

Governor John Bel Edwards discusses the idea at almost every press conference – as the state reopens it’s economy, beginning with elective healthcare, the state must ramp up testing methods to “stay ahead of the virus.”

Part of that is simply expanding regular coronavirus testing availability. The Louisiana Department of Health’s goal is anywhere from 150,000 – 200,000 tests administered in the month of May, and trying to increase those tests going forward.

Another piece of the puzzle is serology testing, or searching for antibodies within the blood and plasma of those who have been infected with COVID-19. Currently, serology testing is not without it’s challenges – the common cold is caused by a coronavirus, and many early antibody testing kits are picking up that strain, as well.

Finally, the Louisiana Department of Health will be pursuing ‘contact tracing,’ or investigative testing. The department will track those who test positive for COVID-19, and then test those who are near to that positive test – friends, family, and potentially co-workers, depending on where the individual had been in the past two weeks.

Two weeks, or 14 days, is the incubation period for COVID-19.

However, LDH has a hurdle to jump before they can perform appropriate contact tracing – staffing.

According to the department’s secretary, LDH has hired or repurposed at least 70 workers for the contact tracing program. The magic number for staffing? 700.

The LDH has discussed some minor contact tracing in the past, but moving forward it will be extremely important according to Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the LDH. According to both Billioux and the governor, when the economy re-opens rampant coronavirus testing will need to be available as individuals have more one-to-one interaction with others in public.

Billioux said that, even with regular testing, people can be missed – which is where contact tracing comes in.

“We work in concentric circles,” the doctor explained, “if someone tests positive for coronavirus we’ll then start contact tracing – who have they been around, who have those people been around?”

Billioux described it as an investigation to see how many people could have come in contact with that person and potentially carry the virus. They will then be tested and, most likely, asked to self-quarantine.

“We have to be aggressive with testing if we’re going to stay ahead of this,” Billioux said, “especially once people start leaving their homes more than they do now.”

Louisiana currently leads the nation, per capita, in coronavirus testing. The governor, however, is still not pleased with the level of testing. COVID-19 test kits are difficult to come by due to a supply shortage, and serology tests are still being developed that track this strain of the coronavirus.

Livingston Parish is reporting 461 completed tests through commercial labs — up by 39 from the day before — and four additional tests completed through the state lab, according to the Department of Health.

However, the total case count increased by nine, from 149 to 158. State officials have said that they intend to increase the information produced on their website – ldh.la.gov/coronavirus – which shows case count by census heat map, providing a more localized delivery system.

LDH officials said that the lack of reporting on a local level on Monday was due to that work toward expansion of information provided.

The COVID-19 death toll in Livingston Parish rose by one from Monday to Tuesday, for a total of nine, according to the latest figures from the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH).

Four days this week Livingston Parish reported a new death, and the parish has reported seven new fatalities since the first was confirmed April 1.

LDH Region 9 statistics remained relatively constant, which contains Livingston Parish, currently has 41 ventilators in use, with 165 available. There are also 86 ICU beds in use, with 106 available, and 812 total hospital beds in use, with 703 remaining.

Region 9 consists of Livingston, St. Helena, Tangipahoa, Washington, and St. Tammany parishes. Most COVID-19 cases are currently in St. Tammany Parish, most likely overflow from hard-hit New Orleans.

The number of reported hospitalizations grew to 1,798 on Tuesday, an increase of 4 from the previous day, while the number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators reached 297, a drop of 35 from Monday. The drop in number of patients was pronounced between Friday and Saturday, while over the last four days, the number of patients on ventilators have dropped by 100.

The Monday to Tuesday jump saw the second increase in patients admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 in seven days.

The statewide case count of the novel coronavirus increased by 331 overnight, bringing the statewide total to 24,854, according to the Department of Health. That’s 214 fewer new reports, as opposed to the Sunday to Monday jump which saw 252 more new reported cases than the day before, or 348 to 545.

In the last week, Gov. John Bel Edwards has said the state is starting to see a “flattening of the curve” in regards to the number of new cases, which have increased by less than 600 a day for six straight days after nearly a week of daily increases reaching as much as 2,000.

The state has been reporting fewer new cases, per day, over the past week.

The reported statewide death toll rose to 1,405, an increase of 77 from the day before and a jump of 521 over the last week. Fifty-five out of the state’s 64 parishes are reporting at least one COVID-19 related death, including eight in Livingston Parish.

The state has now completed over 151,000 tests, either through the state lab or commercial labs. The vast majority of tests (95 percent) have been conducted in commercial labs, according to the Department of Health. Louisiana ranks near the stop nationally in numbers of tests per capita.

The governor Friday re-iterated the mantra he’s been espousing for roughly two weeks now regarding the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Gov. John Bel Edwards told a crowd at LSU’s Pete Maravich Assembly Center that the state was moving on the right path toward Apr. 30 and the phased re-opening of the economy. New cases continued to slow as hospitalizations and patients on ventilators were declining.

But, the governor warned, that trend had to continue as the state barreled toward the month of May. The governor reminded citizens of social distancing measures, mitigation efforts, and the ‘Stay at Home’ order that is in place until the end of April.

  • Wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds
  • Disinfect common surfaces at home and work
  • 10 or less at any public gathering, preferably no gatherings at all
  • Stay six feet away from others in public places
  • Control cough and sneezing with elbow or tissue
  • Stay home if sick and utilize telehealth to contact your doctor
  • Stay home unless visiting doctor, pharmacy, or grocery store

Edwards said that the efforts he has made in the Bayou State are not political, but follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and the federal government. According to the governor, he has had consistent contact with both President Donald Trump and Vice President Pence – both of whom have supported the state’s response to the virus.

McHugh David | The News

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