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Coronavirus tracing could be the key to re-opening the economy

Gov. John Bel Edwards has a goal of 200,000 COVID tests per month in Louisiana.

NEW ORLEANS — The road home from the coronavirus crisis is expected to be long, with potential detours along the way.

Public health experts said to reopen safely, we need to find out sooner when someone has COVID-19, then trace and isolate the people they've come into contact with.

Those contacts are at greater risk of infection.

“We do know that about 40 percent of people who are giving COVID to others do not have symptoms, so we need to be able to test beyond just people who are sick,” Dr. Rebekah Gee, the former state health secretary, said.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has a goal of 200,000 COVID tests per month in Louisiana.

The state health department estimates it needs a small army of 700 contact tracers.

Dr. Gee now heads the LSU Health Services Division.

She said even with stepped-up testing and contact tracing in place, we need a Coronavirus vaccine or an effective treatment before we can do everything just like we used to do it.

“We’ve got to be careful because we don’t want to lose all of the gains from all of this work, we’ve all done and go back to the point where we were several weeks ago where we were two ventilators away from being out of ventilators at one of our hospitals,” Gee said. “

Gee added, “This is the first day in 37 days we’ve had no deaths in New Orleans. That’s fantastic. That’s a result of people staying at home. What we don’t want to do is everyone go back to things as normal and we see another peak just as high or higher because we’re being sloppy. We want that curve to keep going down.”

Jefferson Economic Development Commission President Jerry Bologna agrees widespread testing is key to local phased reopening plans.

“As we open this (economy) in phases, it will be imperative to monitor those spikes and make sure we continue to have that (hospital) capacity before letting additional phases come online,” Bologna said. “That will also be important.”

Bologna is also calling on businesses to have their own individual safeguards in place.

“In certain industries, you’re certainly going to see face masks, gloves where they can be changes continuously and not leading to further spread of the virus,” Bologna said. “The plexiglass dividers, limiting the touches on point of sale systems, more frequent cleaning of those surfaces, that’s all going to be part of the guidance.”

Bologna added, “There is no way to discount the medical toll this has taken on us and the loss of lives and how important that is. But our charge is as the economy reopens, we want our businesses to be prepared to do it in an orderly and as safe a way as possible.”

In the meantime, Gee said LSU is leading efforts to ramp up Coronavirus testing in the state.

“We’re looking at the quality of the testing,” Gee said. “We’re making sure that we evaluate what are the best tests so we can educate the public on that. We’re looking at antibody screening. We’re going to need to do all of that.”

Gee also noted the mobile testing now underway throughout the New Orleans region is a good model to build on.

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