Two members of the National Guard in March standing at the drive-through coronavirus testing site at Armstrong Park. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Thursday evening that the Louisiana National Guard would continue to assist the state’s COVID-19 response. As the Lens reported last week, both the Louisiana Department of Health and the New Orleans Health Department had been planning for a National Guard withdrawal on Dec. 17.

In a statement, Edwards said that the National Guard have administered more than 287,000 COVID tests in Louisiana. The Guard runs three high-capacity drive-through testing sites in the New Orleans area, which are partly funded by the federal Department of Health and Human Services. The Guard also assists with distribution of protective equipment and other medical supplies in New Orleans. More than 700 Guard soldiers are deployed statewide for the COVID response.

“Without these hardworking men and women, our state would be severely limited in its ability to test for COVID,” Edwards’ statement said.

The announcement came after a late afternoon decision from the White House to extend a federal cost sharing partnership, called Title 32, with the state National Guard for COVID response. Under that agreement, the federal government will continue to pay for 75 percent of National Guard expenses, while the state pays the remaining 25 percent.

The extension lasts until the end of March.

In his statement, Edwards said “I am deeply appreciative of President Donald Trump’s action to extend the use of National Guard troops under TItle 32. … I spoke with Vice President Mike Pence on Monday about this great need the states were facing and he worked quickly to get the approval granted.”

However, this isn’t the first time that the White House has extended support at the last minute. In August, Politico reported that an extension was issued only days before many states began pulling National Guard soldiers out of COVID response.

In a statement, LaTonya Norton, a spokesperson for the city of New Orleans, said, “We are very pleased at the Governor’s announcement of continued National Guard testing. This has been a critical part of our efforts to control the spread of COVID and of our overall testing strategy. We recognized this extension was far from certain, and several weeks ago began planning with our other community testing partners to maximize resources and continue to provide a high level of testing.”

There were signals that Edwards expected the extension to be granted. In a Wednesday afternoon press conference with Admiral Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for Health and Human Services, and the Trump administration’s “testing czar,” Edwards said that the National Guard would be “instrumental” to the state’s vaccine distribution plans and continued testing efforts.

But the lack of certainty can hamper the state’s ability to respond effectively. Last week, Sarah Babcock at the New Orleans Health Department said that the city was trying to find staff who could set up and break down testing sites if the Guard withdrew. At the same time, furloughs have reduced staffing capacity across the department.

The city was also planning for a vaccine distribution process without support from the National Guard.

“Given how strained our public health resources are, people especially, all of this uncertainty only makes the job harder,” said Susan Hassig, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Tulane University who also serves on the state’s COVID-19 task force. “[It’s] harder to plan for the next week, month, and then harder to re-plan when these changes occur.”