Members of the National Guard direct cars minutes after opening a new federal drive-through coronavirus testing center in March 2020. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

UPDATE (March 21, 2020): Beginning Sunday, March 22, the New Orleans testing centers will expand eligibility criteria to allow any member of the public who is symptomatic to be tested.

There we’re already 20 cars lined up outside the Mahalia Jackson Theater in Armstrong Park at 8 a.m. this morning, waiting for camouflaged National Guard troops to wave them through the gates of a newly opened drive-through coronavirus testing station. 

The Treme location was one of two testing centers opened Friday in New Orleans to test medical workers and first responders who are showing symptoms of the virus. The other location is at the UNO Lakefront Arena. A third center at the Alario Center in Westwego is expected to open Saturday, The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported

City of New Orleans officials said they expect the centers will be open to the general public eventually, though they could initially not say when that will happen. But on Saturday morning, the city announced that the centers would open to the public beginning Sunday.

The three newest testing sites are being opened as part of a federal pilot program being offered in New Orleans, Dallas, Philadelphia and Seattle. It’s part of the effort to ramp up testing in the United States, which has severely lagged behind other countries such as South Korea and Italy. The project is being headed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but also involves the National Guard, FEMA and the federal Department of Homeland Security, along with state and local government offices. 

The West Jefferson Medical Center opened up a drive-through screening center for the general public earlier this week, which is available to people who have cold or flu-like symptoms after they complete a phone evaluation

As of Friday morning, there were 479 people in Louisiana who tested positive for the virus, most of them in Orleans Parish. So far 11 people in the state have died after being infected, eight of whom were in Orleans Parish. But those numbers are only based on a relatively small number of tests. The state lab has only administered 1,047 tests, though private testing has ramped up. The state does not provide figures on the number of private tests administered, only positive results from private labs. 

“This is for medical workers and first responders,” said Collin Arnold, director of the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, on Friday morning. “They are on the front lines of this. We have to know if they’re sick. And we have to keep them, to the best of our ability, on the front lines.” 

Asked if testing will open up for the general public, Arnold said, “I think this [pilot] is going to inform that, and I think that will happen.”

The testing centers will be open from 8 a.m. and will close either at 6 p.m. or when they reach their capacity limit. Each site is currently equipped with 2,400 tests, Arnold said, but will only be able to give out 100 tests a day due to lab processing capacity. 

“We wrote this up in three and a half, four days,” Arnold said. “We gotta stress that this is a pilot program. It’s very fluid.”

In order to get a test, you need to be a medical worker or first responder who is showing symptoms of the coronavirus, including coughing and a fever. Arnold said that people seeking tests would be “triaged based on symptoms.” Results will come back in three to five days, he said.

According to the city’s NOLA Ready webpage, only people in vehicles will be able to get the test. 

“For the safety of the testing personnel, the drive-through sites will not be able to accommodate walk-up individuals,” the website says. “Individuals must arrive in a vehicle.”

It’s unclear what that means for medical workers who don’t have a car and rely on public transportation. Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office was not immediately available for comment. 

“Personnel in full medical protective gear will check the individual’s temperature with a no-touch thermometer and insert a nasal swab to obtain the necessary sample,” said the city website.

Those getting tested will need to provide their insurance information, according to the city’s update, “although everyone will be tested regardless of whether or not they have insurance.” 

“They’re not being charged to my knowledge,” Arnold said. (Earlier this week, Louisiana Commissioner of Insurance James Donelon ordered insurers across the state to waive cost-sharing for medically necessary coronavirus testing.) 

After the press conference, Arnold said that he was “very concerned” about the potential for a surge in cases to overwhelm the capacity of the city’s hospitals and medical facilities. On Thursday, Gov. John Bel Edwards said that could happen in the New Orleans region in seven to 10 days, in a worst-case scenario. 

Arnold said that medical capacity was not currently limited by medical workers coming down with the virus. 

“Fortunately, no we’re not,” he said. “We’re doing OK. We have the proper protective equipment so exposures have been limited.”

Earlier in the week, access to personal protective equipment was listed as a major concern for first responders, including the fire department

“It’s starting to become a little more available,” Arnold said. “Through the state we placed orders. We also had a lot on hand. So we’ve done our best to try and maximize what we have. But it’s a problem all over the world right now.”

Arnold said the state was working hard, and was most worried about creating more space in hospitals to treat coronavirus victims with the worst, deadliest symptoms.

“As we know, coronavirus varies,” he said. “Especially elederly and immunocompromised or [people with] existing respiratory conditions, this may kill them. But for much of the population that is not the case.”

That is why the state has started utilizing cabins in Bayou Segnette State Park in Westwego. Temporary housing is being offered to homeless people to lower their risk of infection, as well as people who have already tested positive for the virus but don’t have symptoms severe enough to justify hospitalization. As an example, Arnold said that the facility might be used by someone who has tested positive for the virus, and has mild symptoms or is asymptomatic, but needs to stay away from vulnerable people in their home.

“That’s what this is all part of. That’s what the quarantine or isolation surge is part, trying to free up hospital space for people who actually need to be admitted.”

Arnold said that Bayou Segnette has 380 spaces available, and that the state was also working to establish a similar arrangement with a local hotel. He couldn’t provide details on what that arrangement would look like, but indicated that the state will be entering some kind of paid agreement.

“That’s going to be through an agreement with the hotel because it will include services that a hotel would offer,” he said.

This story was updated after publication with new information about testing eligibility.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...