By Ned Parker and Chad Terhune
(Reuters) – As coronavirus infections exploded in New Orleans, state and local officials repeatedly told the Trump administration that its new drive-through testing effort wasn’t going well. Those tested often waited more than a week for results, and local officials had no information on who had been notified by a federally contracted call center, according to emails between local and federal officials reviewed by Reuters.
As deaths mounted, local officials requested details on the notifications as they increasingly fielded calls by those left in limbo – including health workers. But Washington officials largely brushed off their concerns, according to the correspondence, which has not been previously reported.
Frustrated city officials started their own operation to notify people after the state began receiving test results on March 26, nearly a week after testing started. One big problem: The lab initially sent many results with no phone numbers to reach those tested.
The delays and confusion created new problems for local officials managing the crisis in one of America’s emerging hot spots. As of Tuesday, Louisiana had more than 21,500 confirmed cases, including more than 1,000 deaths. Timely test results are crucial to containing the virus and enabling essential workers such as doctors and nurses to stay safely on the front lines. The problems in New Orleans underscore the challenges the Trump administration faces in ramping up testing nationwide in hopes of reopening the U.S. economy.
On March 25, city health director Jennifer Avegno sent one of the many requests for information to federal officials.
“We are receiving many calls today from citizens who went through the drive through testing in the earliest days and have not gotten a call,” she wrote. “Can you update us on how many results have been received, turnaround times, and how many individuals have been contacted?”
Kristina Harder, an official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who was working with the federal call center, did not address the information request and instead suggested telling people to be patient. “The call center should be contacting those folks who were at your sites in the beginning days,” she wrote. “I hope this is helpful!”
Harder did not respond to a request for comment.
A day later, Avegno forwarded a doctor’s plea to the Trump administration’s new testing czar, Brett Giroir, and other federal officials. “I’m just looking to get my results,” the surgical resident at Tulane University had written.
HHS never provided an accounting of who the call center had notified, city and state officials told Reuters.
In a statement, HHS called the drive-through sites “a profound success” with more than 77,000 people tested nationwide. HHS didn’t address specific questions about problems with the operation in Louisiana or elsewhere. The agency said delays in getting results and notifying patients were resolved and results were now being given within three to five days.
Lisa Miles, a spokeswoman for the company running the federal call center – Maximus Inc. – declined to comment and referred questions to HHS.
In interviews, Louisiana officials said they welcomed the federal testing program despite the problems. About 13,000 people were eventually tested over a three-week period.
“Even though there are issues with the processing, it has significantly contributed to our ability to understand and map this disease,” Avegno said.
A QUESTION OF PRIORITIES
In mid-March, President Donald Trump tapped Giroir, an HHS assistant secretary, to oversee testing nationwide, including the initiative for drive-through operations that would expand to more than 40 sites, including three in the New Orleans area. U.S. officials were eager to show progress after widespread problems with a defective government test kit that delivered inconclusive results, hindering the public-health response for weeks.
On March 14, federal officials reached out to Louisiana leaders about hosting testing sites, records show. Two days later, a top Louisiana health official questioned whether drive-through centers were a wise use of scarce testing supplies and protective gear. Alexander Billioux, a Louisiana Department of Health assistant secretary, emailed Giroir and suggested the limited supply of test swabs might be better used at hospital labs that were prioritizing tests for health workers, hospitalized patients and nursing home residents. A drive-through wouldn’t help those people, he told Giroir. He also asked for an estimated wait time for results. Giroir wrote back that he expected a 48-hour turnaround time but said he made no guarantees.
On March 20, the first two drive-through sites opened in the New Orleans area. The people tested were told their results should be available in three to five days and advised to call the state health department if they didn’t hear from the federal call center within a week.
On March 23, Joseph Kanter, an assistant state health officer and emergency physician, asked how the call center would share notification details with state authorities in an email to Erica Schwartz, the U.S. deputy surgeon general who served as the ordering physician for drive-through tests.
“We will need to know which patients remain without knowledge of their results,” Kanter wrote.
Schwartz replied that “the call center will not communicate to the state or local health department,” without explaining why. She recommended that the state “go through their normal processes to contact patients with positive results,” a statement that confused state and local officials – who at the time had no test results and had been instructed that the call center would handle all notifications.
Schwartz did not respond to a request for comment.
MISSING PHONE NUMBERS
On March 26, Billioux emailed Harder at HHS about the high volume of people calling the state for results. He asked for a phone number that people could use to reach someone at the federal level or at Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings, or LabCorp, the company processing the New Orleans tests.
A few hours later, LabCorp sent state officials their first batch of results – but with no corresponding phone numbers for many of those tested, according to the email from Billioux to Harder. Harder replied that she would notify LabCorp and noted “a similar problem receiving partial data in the beginning days.”
That’s when the state transferred the testing data to the city, which on March 28 assigned eight people to field calls and reach out to those tested, which included efforts to track down the people whose information arrived with no phone numbers. As of Monday, the city health department said it still awaited results from LabCorp on about 1,000 tests, some of which have been pending for as long as 10 days.
LabCorp spokesman Mike Geller said the company has faced unprecedented demand during the pandemic but now targets delivering results in four to five days. “We understand how disconcerting it is to not receive test results in a reasonable time frame,” he said.
Avegno told Reuters that relying on the federal call center was untenable. “We were getting flooded with calls from residents, and we had nothing to tell them,” she said. “It’s important to have a local point of reference … residents want to hear from someone to walk them through a positive or negative test.”
Last week, the Trump administration said it was encouraging state and local officials to take over many of the drive-through sites. Some local officials expressed concern about losing federal funding and testing supplies. At a White House press briefing on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence said the administration would continue to partner with states “to the extent that they prefer us to be part of it.”
Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County commission outside Philadelphia, said she was surprised by the federal announcement and reached out to Giroir and Schwartz to secure an extension of federal funding until May 30. Arkoosh said her testing site also had trouble getting information from the federal call center and that she’s awaiting results from LabCorp on more than 400 tests.
“They were both supportive and helpful,” Arkoosh said of Giroir and Schwartz. “But we are pretty busy here, so it would have been great not to go through all that.”
Louisiana officials said they are looking into moving drive-through operations to other areas of the state that have less access to testing.
“Everything with COVID-19 has been difficult. I don’t necessarily put the fault on anybody’s lap,” Billioux said. “The most important thing from our perspective is that we have more and more testing on the ground.”
(Reporting by Chad Terhune and Ned Parker; Editing by Brian Thevenot)