This Is Why You Might Test Negative Even If You Have Coronavirus

A shocking number of results are inaccurate, according to a recent study.

The race to increase COVID-19 testing across the country is finally beginning to pay off. With more testing facilities opening nationwide, it's now much easier for anyone who is afraid they're sick to get swabbed and get some answers. Now the question is, how accurate are those coronavirus test results? According to one recent study, many tests are returning false negatives, usually because they're administered too early or too late in the patient's illness.

The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that 64 percent of COVID-19 tests given four days after patients showed symptoms incorrectly determined patients did not have coronavirus. Perhaps even more shocking is that patients who were tested just one day after they were infected returned a false negative result close to 100 percent of the time.

While findings like this might suggest timing is everything, the study still finds inaccuracies with testing down the line. Patients tested eight days after infection still had a 20 percent chance of showing a false-positive result. And those tested on the exact day their symptoms began had a 38 percent chance of receiving an erroneous test result.

coronavirus test kit

Emily Landon, MD, an epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine, told NPR that the COVID-19 contagion takes at least three to five days after exposure to test positive. However, the outlet similarly warned that "a negative test shouldn't be seen as your ticket to stop being cautious."

"A negative test, whether or not a person has symptoms, doesn't guarantee that they aren't infected by the virus," Lauren Kucirka, MD, an obstetrics and gynecology resident at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told The Daily Mail. "How we respond to, and interpret, a negative test is very important because we place others at risk when we assume the test is perfect. However, those infected with the virus are still able to potentially spread the virus."

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The study highlights a longstanding problem within the medical community of pinpointing potential carriers of coronavirus as early as possible. Without accurate early detection, it can be much harder to isolate anyone who is contagious and keep them from spreading the disease.

Authors of the study claim that these findings should change the way doctors treat patients showing symptoms of COVID-19. By being aware of testing inaccuracies, physicians can wait and test again to be sure of their diagnosis. The authors suggest that "clinicians should consider waiting [one to three] days after symptom onset to minimize the probability of a false-negative result." And for more information on how to get screened for COVID-19, check out The Secret Way You Can Get a Free Coronavirus Antibody Test.

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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