A surge testing experiment by the federal government has more than doubled Baton Rouge’s testing capacity, the city’s mayor says, but has still fallen short of the 5,000-tests-per-day goal that officials had hoped to reach.
Mayor Sharon Weston Broome says federal officials have been able to test nearly 17,000 people in one week through the high-volume testing program, which has also been operating in an experimental form in Texas and Florida.
That marks an average of under 2,500 people each day, though the testing rate has accelerated significantly since the first day of the push, which Baton Rouge has labeled “Geaux Get Healthy.” The program offers free tests to anyone, regardless of symptoms.
“It certainly is an excellent model of testing,” Weston Broome says, adding the program has helped increase access to testing and supplemented existing testing infrastructure.
The effort comes as cases spike for the second time in Louisiana and Baton Rouge. In East Baton Rouge Parish, confirmed positives have quadrupled in the last month. COVID-19 hospitalizations in the region increased 145% just in the last week.
“Unfortunately, we are practically back to where we were a few months ago,” she says.
The mayor also addressed a video of a Baton Rouge police officer putting his knee on a Black teenager following a nearly hour-long car chase, in which the teenager was a passenger. The Baton Rouge Police Department announced an investigation into the incident on Tuesday.
“A knee on the neck of any citizen as a tactic for restraint is unacceptable here in the city and parish of Baton Rouge,” she says.
On whether the model should be expanded to other cities
“It certainly is an excellent model of testing. First of all, the tests are being distributed throughout the city. So we have tests in disinvested areas of the community, where they can get thousands of tests, at least in four corners of our cities. So [there is] access to the test. Secondly, the tests are free. And thirdly, if you have symptoms or you don’t have symptoms and you just want to know [what] your status is, you can. And so these testing sites and several mobile testing sites throughout our region certainly are improving our capacity for testing. And we definitely know that testing is part of the equation for mitigating COVID-19.”
On why cases are up in Baton Rouge
“Well, I think people got relaxed. … people relaxed, you know, wearing masks, relaxed their hand washing and made themselves a part of crowds here in Baton Rouge. We had young people who were part of big crowds at bars and all of those bars and many of the people in there have tested positive. So I think it’s been a relaxed attitude, number one, that has caused this resurgence. I did a mask mandate almost … two weeks [ago] now. And in essence, it says, you know, no mask, no service. I know that has helped based on our observations, there has been an increased number [of masks]. And then following my mask mandate, our governor [Democrat John Bel Edwards] just rolled out a state-wide mask mandate. And so we understand while masks are not the final frontier in our fight against COVID-19, masks and face coverings are certainly a part of the mitigation process.”
On Vice President Pence’s push to reopen schools during a visit to Baton Rouge
“I certainly understand the desire to have our students back in school. I get it from an educational and academic point of view. And I also get it from a mental point of view, the mental well-being of our students as well. But I think that we have to be very guarded as we get back into reopening schools, that we don’t accentuate a situation that we have, of course, here in Louisiana.
“What we have to remember is although some of the data shows that students are and the younger groups are not as susceptible … we have adults that they are constantly engaged with, whether it’s the teachers, their family members, etc. So I think we have to move down this path very guardedly and very intentionally in terms of how we reopen schools.”
On a video that shows a Baton Rouge police officer putting his knee on a Black teenager who is lying on the ground. The police department announced Tuesday it would investigate the incident. It’s not clear if the officer’s knee is on the 17-year-old’s neck or back.
“I have made a very demonstrative statement as the leader of the city and parish. … We have made tremendous progress, and we still have room to grow as it relates to our relationship with the police and the community, because this is not new to us.
“As you know, in 2016, we had the killing of Alton Sterling, an officer involved shooting. Days after that, we had officers who were ambushed and killed. So we have been a community in trauma. We have made progress in our relationship with the citizens of this community. I don’t want to regress. There is a timely investigation that is going on. … And I will assure … that equity and justice is always the standard that we will have here in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“The optics do not look good. And let me repeat. Anybody putting a knee on the neck of any citizen as a tactic is not accepted. It is unacceptable here and it will not be tolerated. I believe the optics and I’m not going to debate the optics, but I’m going to set what the standard here is in Baton Rouge.”
Francesca Paris produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Paris also adapted it for the web.