Q&A: Dr. Jason Halperin On The Efforts Of One New Orleans Clinic To Ramp Up COVID-19 Testing

Mar 19, 2020

One of the biggest challenges Louisiana has faced since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus is testing. That’s been true for residents trying to figure out how to get care, and for medical professionals trying to provide it.

CrescentCare, the sexual health and HIV health clinic in New Orleans, has not only been ramping up it’s own testing capabilities, it’s figured out a creative way to get more tests. The clinic also serves a younger population — something that could be key in the wake of new numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that 40 percent of hospitalized patients in the U.S. have been people between the ages of 20 and 54.

New Orleans Public Radio spoke with Dr. Jason Halperin, the HIV and infectious diseases clinical lead at CrescentCare, to learn how that clinic is responding to the pandemic.

Rosemary Westwood: How has CrescentCare been conducting coronavirus testing?

Dr. Jason Halperin: Well, we jumped into action. As of last week, we shut down our entrances to our health facility and screened everyone coming in. We also made sure that our patients knew that if they were feeling unwell, they could come to our clinic for COVID-19 screening. We also set up a mobile health van to be a dedicated unit for that screening. What was important for me was to ensure that we also could screen for flu and strep as well as COVID-19 testing.

Why is it important to screen for those other diseases as well?

We continue to see strep and flu in our community. So it is important to not miss any other condition that might be leading to someone feeling unwell. Of course, we are in this pandemic and we need to screen for COVID-19 and we are doing so.

What other impact has the pandemic had on your ability to do the day-to-day work of caring for people with HIV?

It really has changed our clinic flow completely. We are doing telehealth now for all of our patients to keep them in care. But we have much less access to laboratory services. We have also had to decrease our HIV testing work that is essential for our community. But right now, it would not be appropriate with the restrictions that are recommended from the Department of Health.

How many people have you tested for coronavirus then, and have you had any positives?

We have tested almost 100 people. We have not had any positives, but there has been a great delay in the results returning. So we have had very few come through, and all have been negative.

We know you're doing something creative to try and get more tests. Tell us about the test you're using and how you're trying to create more.

So we are a community-based health center, and we're also a sexual wellness center. When we first received our Covid-19 tests, we recognized that the swab was the same as a flu test. The swab is the material that enters one's nose to get the material that will be sent to test, but that material needs to stay alive, or active, until the test is performed. So it's placed in a media. That's a small test tube with a bit of liquid on the bottom. And it's the media that we are in urgent need of. We recognized it's the same media that's used for herpes testing. We had in-house media, because of the type of clinic we are, so we were able to expand our testing from 25 units to 125. That was very beneficial for us. But now, we are very low on tests. And it is very difficult for us to expand testing without more units.

So what you have then is a problem of supply. And you have the flu swabs, I understand, what you're looking for are more of these herpes media?

That's correct. So we have the flu swabs. It is this universal transport media — as I said a test tube with a little liquid in it on the bottom that keeps viruses alive — so we are looking for that media. We are calling clinics and partners, and we're really pushing on all of our lab connections to see if we can get more, because we really cannot increase testing unless we have this.

Finally, Dr. Halperin, why is it important that young people also be tested for Covid-19? Because that is a large part of the population that you serve.

So that's a great question. I know that the state is going to expand testing, and I cannot be more thankful. They're really focused on health care workers and those who are at high risk. Those individuals need to be tested. But we also have to think about who might be transmitting this virus unknowingly. And those are healthy people who might get over this virus quite quickly, feel well, and then go back into our communities. So if we could test people, especially those who are young, we could inform them that they have this virus and they can then take the necessary precautions to limit any transmission.