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)

New Orleans is making preparations to lose Louisiana National Guard support for its COVID response on December 17, city Health Department officials say. The loss of the National Guard support is expected to reduce the city’s testing capacity by several hundred tests a day, although city testing will still exceed testing benchmarks.

Sarah Babcock, the Health Department’s director of policy and emergency preparedness, said in a Monday interview that the city has been in touch with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness and the Louisiana Department of Health and requested that the Guard’s activation be extended.

She said that the state had not given New Orleans a timeline on that decision, but “we’re working off the assumption that they will be ending on December 17.”

GOHSEP did not return questions from the Lens by Tuesday morning. Kevin Litten, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Health, said over email that LDH “is working on a plan to account for not having Louisiana National Guard staffing at community-based sites after December 17,” but said that “it is too early to share details of this plan.”

Litten did not immediately respond to follow-up questions, so it’s not clear if the National Guard will be withdrawing from testing locations across the state. Since the beginning of the pandemic, it has run testing sites in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and the River Parishes, as well as a regular drive-through testing location in Westwego.

Sgt. Denis Ricou, a spokesperson for the Louisiana National Guard, directed specific questions about the Guard’s deployment to GOHSEP, but said that over 700 National Guard soldiers are deployed statewide to support COVID response.

New Orleans’ goal is to conduct 400 to 500 tests per day — including the publicly-run community testing sites, testing at clinics and hospitals and university-run on-campus testing — based on testing guidelines from Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office.

“Over the last 2 months,” said Babcock, “we’ve been doing close to 2,000.” However, she noted that much of that comes from mass testing at Tulane University. 

Since Halloween, Tulane has been testing thousands of people a day to catch outbreaks in the undergraduate population and to screen students before they go home for the holidays. Over a similar time period, the city’s total testing numbers have shot above 4,000. But as Jeff Asher at The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate has noted, there’s a lag between Tulane’s reporting and the city’s, making it impossible to verify exactly how many tests a day are coming from community testing sites.

“We would drop 200 to 300 tests per day,” if the National Guard leaves, Babcock estimated. However, she didn’t expect the city to drop below the 400 to 500 tests per day benchmark.

Since July, the Guard has staffed drive-through testing sites at the University of New Orleans and outside the Mahalia Jackson Theater Armstrong Park. Those sites are operated in partnership with the New Orleans Health Department and the federal Department of Health and Human Services, and provided unlimited testing during the summer months when walk-up testing sites would regularly run out of tests.

But in the past few months, said Babcock, demand for those drive-through testing sites has dropped off substantially. “They’re seeing less than 100 people a day, most days,” she said. Meanwhile, “we’re seeing that many, or more, at the walk up sites.”

The tests themselves provided at the drive-through testing site are distinct from those provided at walk-up testing sites, in that they are paid for and processed by HHS.

“Those tests get sent off somewhere else in the country to be run,” Babcock said.

On the other hand, tests from walk-up sites, which are processed by LCMC Health, “just have to be driven over to the University Medical Center.”

Because of that proximity, and because LCMC has scaled up its processing capacity to meet daily demand, said Babcock, walk-up testing sites are returning results in one or two days, while drive-through tests take three to five.

Right now, Babcock said that the city has a reserve of testing kits because fewer people were seeking testing in early fall. Because of that reserve, the city has been able to meet the recent spike in testing demand without capping daily tests, unlike in midsummer, when sites were often allocated 150 to 250 tests per day.

But if demand for testing continues to rise because of the surge in cases, said Babcock, “we might have to go back to a point of having caps.”

Federally provided tests used at the National Guard testing sites are still expanding the city’s testing capacity, even if they’re slower. Losing them would reduce the city’s volume or put additional pressure on LCMC’s test-processing capacities.

The federal tests are provided to the city through LDH, and in the end, Babcock said, “I believe we will still have access to them.” However, those tests would be administered by LDH, which did not respond to a follow-up question about how they would be used.

The city is in talks with its local testing partners, Ochsner, LCMC, and the nonprofit disaster-relief organization CORE, about how to expand their testing capacity or hours to make up for lost National Guard testing.

“This is really a personnel issue across the board,” Babcock. “An LCMC nurse at a testing site means hours they are not in a clinical setting for their hospitals.”

To expand community testing capacity, “there may be a longer wait time to get results.”

Either way, Babcock said, city officials “think the walk-up [sites] are the best option,” and is weighing whether or not to continue the drive-through sites independently.

“The community-based model is something that we’re proud of,” she said, “and we intentionally moved to that method. [Drive-through] sites did not meet the needs of everyone in our community,” particularly those on foot or bike.

The Guard also provides logistical support for the city, transporting personal protective equipment, and coordinating the setup and teardown of community testing sites, which move from day to day.

To fill that gap, Babcock said that the city is “looking at sites that don’t require as much setup and teardown,” and where a testing site can remain in place for a week at a time. The health department is also interested in providing more staff to help with that physical infrastructure, “but obviously that’s difficult in terms of furloughs.”