Louisiana's former health chief on COVID-19 testing: we're nowhere near where we need to be

LSU Health Care Services Division CEO & Former Louisiana Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee joins Yahoo FInance’s Seana Smith to break down the coronavirus outlook in Louisiana and how an antibody test may be the key to reopening the economy.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: Welcome back. The coronavirus cases worldwide now topping 2.4 million. And here in the US, that number is now topping 749,000. Joining us now to talk more about the latest developments with the virus. We have Dr. Rebekah Gee, LSU Health Care Services Division CEO and former Secretary for Louisiana's Department of Health. And, Dr. Gee, thanks so much for taking the time to join us here on the show this afternoon.

Let's start with the latest when it comes to Louisiana. The state now has more than 23,000 cases, over 1,200 deaths. Where do the mitigation efforts for the state stand at this point?

REBEKAH GEE: So our governor, John Bel Edwards, and Mayor LaToya Cantrell from New Orleans were quick and decisive in implementing stay at home policies and school closures, which have been in place for nearly a month. And as a result, we're seeing the result of the stay at home measures. The really dark days were about three weeks ago when we saw the ventilators nearly run out. In fact, in one of the hospitals, our doctor staff, they were two ventilators away from having none.

And PPE, or personal protective equipment, constraints were very high because the supply chain from China had not arrived yet. And that was the height of the eBay-type bidding of states against states and states against the federal government. But since that time, we've seen the supply chain improve. We've also seen the numbers improve. In fact, we have 200-- at our height, we had 571 patients on ventilators, and today, just a little bit over 330, which is a really good shift. And at our height, we had 2,000 patients hospitalized with coronavirus, and now 1,794.

So the numbers are showing improvement. And certainly, that is leading to a lot of pressure on our elected officials to shift towards reopening. Although, given how many cases we've had in this state, that move has not been announced yet, nor do I think the governor or mayor are contemplating that-- contemplating that probably before June.

SEANA SMITH: Yeah, doctor, I want to talk about that. As we see the number of cases trend in the right direction, how do we ensure that the recent decline in new cases continues?

REBEKAH GEE: Well, look, this is a highly contagious virus and one that we now know is transmissible from people who do not have any symptoms at all-- in fact, a recent report out of Italy conclusively showed that about 40% of those who were transmitting the virus had no symptoms or negligible symptoms. So I don't think we can assume that the majority of the population is not infected until we're able to do testing. Now, Louisiana has very robust public health infrastructure.

And as a result of that and early efforts by our hospital systems and public health leaders, we are number one in the nation in terms of per capita tests done. But we're still nowhere near where we need to be. We've done 135,000 tests, but we still need to do more so that we really know that the invisible is visible. In other words, we know where this virus is, who has it, we can do effective containment measures so that we know that when you go to a Saints football game or you go to a Pelicans game or to a grocery store for that matter, that you will have security that you're not going to be next to someone who is infected.

And we're not there yet until we have much more robust testing.

SEANA SMITH: When we talk about the need for robust testing, you're saying that we're nowhere near the number of tests that are needed. And that has been echoed throughout the medical industry. When will we have enough? Or what needs to happen to ensure that we do have enough tests-- not only in Louisiana, but in states across the country?

REBEKAH GEE: Well, there are a couple of things that are happening now. One is that you have tests that have very high false negatives. In other words, someone has the virus, you test them for it, and the test says they're negative but they really are positive. And we have several different manufacturers who are making these tests, and there's still much more information needed about the proper testing procedures, making sure the specimens are properly handled, and making sure that these tests are more accurate. You certainly need to know that your tests are accurate when you're using those tests to make decisions on a broad scale.

So we just, for example, at LSU got-- through Congressman Richmond and the generosity Hyundai-- 10,000 tests and a C-Gene machine. C-Gene is what the South Korean government used to test, very effectively, their people. And we're hopeful that it does not have the certification or EUA required yet. But we're hopeful that that will be ramped up and will be more specific or, in other words, have less false negative results. So we're working through that.

We're also dealing with things like supply chain because we have not enough diversification of production. For example, the swabs that you need to put up someone's nose to get the specimen for COVID are made in northern Italy-- the vast majority of them. And certainly, we've all heard about how devastated northern Italy was in recent weeks, and that impacted manufacturing. So one of our rate limiting steps is not enough swaps. So we're looking at things like can we use our 3D printers at LSU and other venues to produce those?

Another impediment has been the fluid that you need to transport this virus in, and that's something that has run out globally and is a rate-limiting step. So we've got to up the production of what's needed. And we also, I think, should have learned from this epidemic that we need to diversify production so we don't just rely on one region of the world for the entire world's needs for certain products. We've got to get these tests in better shape so that we know when we do a test it's accurate, and we've got to up the number of tests that are available-- so we're not just testing those who are sick but we're able to test, for example, every health care worker, and we're able to test wide scale for businesses. And then finally, we're going to have to be able to test for antibodies so that we know that people who have had this virus have had it so that they can feel more secure about going into work-- similar to procedures being used in Germany right now.

SEANA SMITH: Yeah, Doctor Gee, I wanted to follow up on the antibody testing, because so many doctors have come on here, come on this show and said, that is the last critical part-- that is what we need in order to safely reopen the economy. And to have these discussions about reopening the economy at this point is just premature-- it's way too early. It sounds like you might agree with that. Is that true?

REBEKAH GEE: That's right. So at Louisiana State University, we just received 1,000 finger stick kits. These are similar to what you do to check your blood sugar. And we don't know how accurate they are. We're still learning, and we've got to test them. We've tested on COVID negative patients, and they come up negative. But we've got to test them on some COVID positive patients. So we're going to deploy those with our COVID tests. COVID tests are a DNA or RNA reverse transcriptase test, which takes the DNA out of cells of areas that are infected like your nasal area-- nasal passages or your spit from your lungs. And those are able to test that way.

Antibodies are circulating widely in the blood and are a lot easier to find. And so in theory, you can develop a finger stick test that doesn't require the kinds of things that we have to do right now to get DNA or RNA extraction. And that will be easily-- much more easily done at a population level. But right now, we don't know which ones are really accurate. We don't have the wide-scale manufacturing. And I think there's some push to get things out that really aren't shovel ready where I've heard reports-- and we're not using them-- from other systems where they're using these tests and they're just not accurate.

So I think we make a mistake if we get out too quickly in front of ourselves on these and allow inaccurate tests to give people false assurance that they have antibodies if we really don't know they're valid. And so I think all of that is happening now, and I would expect in the next month we will have much better answers. But today, it's really still not clear which antibody test you can use and how best to deploy these strategies across populations.

SEANA SMITH: Yeah, there's still so many unknowns out there at this point. Dr. Rebekah Gee, LSU Health Care Services Division CEO and also former Secretary for Louisiana's Department of Health, thanks so much for taking the time to join the show this afternoon.

REBEKAH GEE: Thank you for having me.