Coronavirus file photo stock of face mask production

In this Thursday, March 26, 2020, photo, Jose Pedro Sanchez, originally from Veracruz, Mexico, sews a face mask at Blue Delta Jeans in Shannon, Miss. The company has shifted its operation from making custom jeans to help with the demand of face masks to combat the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

A COVID-19 study launched Monday is aimed at determining how widespread the coronavirus is in the Baton Rouge region and which populations have been most impacted.

New cases have been on a sharp rise in the region since mid-June, a little more than a week after the state had entered Phase 2 of eased social distancing measures. Those changes included the opening of bars and expanding capacity for restaurants, gyms, nail salons and other businesses.

The study, led by researchers at Ochsner Health in cooperation with Pennington Biomedical Research Center, will provide free COVID-19 diagnostic testing and antibody testing to a representative sample of residents in East and West Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension parishes.

The goal of the study is to test roughly 2,500 volunteers — representing a "mini Baton Rouge" — by Sunday, Ochsner president and CEO Warner Thomas said at a news conference.

Results will provide valuable insights into the rate of active infections and previous exposures to the virus in the Capital region, officials said.

"It is so important that we put resources into not only treating, but also understanding the virus," Pennington executive director John Kirwan said. "The research that we are conducting will help our area hospitals, businesses and local leaders to better prepare for and recover from the ongoing impact of COVID-19."

A similar Ochsner study that tested more than 2,600 volunteers from Orleans and Jefferson parishes in mid-May revealed a prevalence of the coronavirus in those parishes of nearly 8%, which amounts to 64,000 people, Dr. Leo Seoane, Ochsner's chief academic officer and a senior vice president, said at Monday's news conference in Baton Rouge.

The Orleans-Jefferson study also found that 75% of those with an active infection were asymptomatic or presymptomatic, and that some 40% of individuals with COVID-19 never experience symptoms, Seoane added.

Residents can learn more about volunteering for the Baton Rouge study at TestBR.org. Participants must be 18 or older and not have previously tested positive for the virus.

"We encourage residents to join this important study, which will provide us with valuable data about the spread of the virus in our community," East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said at the news conference. She called the coronavirus the "silent enemy."

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation helped secure financial backing for the study, which is funded by the Louisiana COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force and The Humana Foundation, with additional support from The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation.

Amid skyrocketing coronavirus infections and steadily-rising hospitalizations, Gov. John Bel Edwards on Saturday issued a statewide mask mandate and closed bars, both effective Monday, making Louisiana the latest Southern state to ratchet restrictions back up after months of reopening.


Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.