LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - Government labs that test for things like bacteria in surface water and seafood, and sexually transmitted diseases in humans play a vital role in protecting public health. But the state lab that has provided this service in the Lake Charles area for decades is closing.
Lake Charles Regional Health lab has a long and rich history in the area-- even in the 1950s and '60s, helping provide a laboratory classroom for microbiology students at McNeese studying under the late Nell Roberts.
In more recent years, after Sept. 11, 2001, the lab provided vital testing during the anthrax scares. Then, the scientists had perhaps a heightened sense of the contribution they were making to keep people healthy as Dr. B.J. Foch explained back in 2001. "Many of these incidents have turned out to be hoaxes, but we're always concerned that there may be one particular incident that we need to be watching out for. So they take it very seriously and are very careful about their new role,"said Foch.
The Calcasieu Police Jury considered the lab a feather in the area's cap and even built a new building to house it back in 2000. The cornerstone bears the names of then police jurors who are now legislators, including Chuck Kleckley and Mike Danahay.
But now, employees are packing it up and it's closing-- to be consolidated with other labs in the state. Lab director for the Louisiana Office of Public Health, Stephen Martin, says closure is more efficient. "The way we do lab testing is changing from manual testing to highly automated, computerized testing. And it just doesn't work well to have a lot of separate, small facilities. When Lake Charles is closed there will be three. One in Amite, Louisiana. One in Shreveport and one is being built in Baton Rouge."
As well, he says advances in technology have eliminated concerns that transporting specimens used to cause. "Those problems and those limitations don't apply to testing we're doing with molecular techniques," said Martin.
And Martin says they don't want labs south of Interstate 10 where hurricanes hit. "We don't want to be in the area where we have to evacuate for storms every year at the same time we really need to be offering public health testing," said Martin. Martin says the people who depend on the testing will not notice a difference.
Martin says the current state budget situation may have escalated the closure but that it's been part of their long term business plan for a while.
He says closure will save an estimated $300,000 a year.
The Calcasieu Police Jury still owns the building. No word on who will move into it.