Louisiana Struggles With Testing Supply Chain as COVID-19 Cases Rise

Louisiana National Guard Soldiers and Airmen test first responders for COVID-19 infections at Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans, Louisiana, March 20, 2020. The testing site is one of three across New Orleans and Jefferson Parishes and will soon open to the general public. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Josiah Pugh)

A shortage of raw materials needed for machines used to process COVID-19 tests led to testing sites and hospitals in New Orleans and across the state scaling back available testing, even as COVID-19 cases are spiking. According to data from John Hopkins University, Louisiana once again has the fastest rate of COVID-19 case growth in the country over the past two weeks. The seven-day average of new cases in the state is up 112 percent versus two weeks ago.

“Testing demand continues to outclass the supply,” said Louisiana Dept. of Health official Dr. Alexander Billioux. “Where we’re seeing a crunch is on the actual processing of those samples when they get to the lab.”

“America faces an impending disaster,” says a July 16 report from the Rockefeller Foundation. “The extraordinary scale of the COVID-19 crisis is evident in the growing deaths and economic losses the pandemic has wrought in every state. This terrifying tragedy was not and is not inevitable.”

The report was authored by a bipartisan committee of scientists, former federal health officials, industry experts, and investors. Although President Trump has repeatedly called for officials to slow down coronavirus testing, experts continue to state that testing is essential to bringing the spread of COVID-19 under control. According to Rockefeller Foundation president Rajiv Shah, testing is “the legitimate way out of the conundrum of either having tens of thousands, now hundreds of thousands, of Americans die of COVID-19 or having a lockdown that forces economic pain.”

Although U.S. laboratories are conducting around 4.5 million tests a week, a shortage in supplies needed to process the tests have overwhelmed laboratories. Patients are waiting seven days or more to get their test results – which makes the tests nearly useless.

“This is just unacceptable, because by the time you get test results back, you’ve already infected many, many people,” said Mara Aspinall, a professor at College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University, and a co-author of the report.

In spite of grave warnings from experts, Vice President Mike Pence made remarks during a July 14 visit to LSU saying that the country’s ability to respond to the pandemic “is substantially better than two and three months ago, when the coronavirus first came to Louisiana.” Louisiana’s first presumptive COVID-19 case actually occurred four months ago on March 9, 2020.

“Thanks to President Trump’s leadership, thanks to the strong partnership we forged with our governor, the support of these members fo the Senate and House, and the extraordinary healthcare workers here in Louisiana and all across the country, we are in a much stronger position to save lives, to protect the most vulnerable, to flatten the curve, and to continue to open up Louisiana and open up America,” Pence stated.

But experts have suggested that around $75 billion is needed in order to fix the growing testing supply issue across the country. According to the Rockefeller report, the U.S. needs to either ramp up existing testing technology in order to get turnaround times below 48 hours, or engage in the widespread distribution of a cheaper – though less accurate – antigen tests that can be conducted on-site in homes, schools, and offices across the country. Although the antigen tests may miss up to 25 percent of COVID-19 cases, they could easily be used to screen people who are asymptomatic, helping to reduce community spread of coronavirus while leaving the economy open. Venture capitalist at Section 32 and Rockefeller report co-author Michael Pellini stated that the U.S. needs at least 5 million PCR tests each week, or upwards of 30 million antigen tests in order to slow the spread of coronavirus.

“There is actually a pretty broad consensus among Republicans and Democrats in Congress to back this level of spending on testing,” said economist Paul Romer.

“There has been no plan and there is no plan, and that is the danger,” Pellini said. “No country is perfect, but the ones that have done well, some exceptionally well, all have plans.”

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