False-negative results from coronavirus tests are becoming an increasing concern, say doctors trying to diagnose patients and get a grip on the outbreak, as a surprising number of people show up with obvious symptoms only to be told by the tests that they don’t have the disease.
While still more research is necessary to determine the true prevalence of such false-negative results, experts agree that the problem is significant. False negatives not only impede the diagnosis of disease in individual patients and an accurate understanding of the extent of its proliferation, but also risk patients who think they aren’t ill further spreading the virus.
Some doctors described situations in which patients show up with clear symptoms such as a cough and fever, test negative, and then test positive later on. It’s a particular issue in New York, where the disease has likely infected far more than the 174,000 people confirmed through limited testing. At Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, doctor Jeremy Sperling says so-called false-negative tests are now a frequent occurrence in the emergency room.
“If a patient presents with classic Covid symptoms, but tests negative, they’ve still got Covid,” said Sperling, who is the chair of emergency medicine at the hospital. “There is just nothing else it could be in New York City in 2020.”
Concerns about false negatives arise from a mix of factors: quickly created tests from dozens of labs and manufacturers that haven’t been extensively vetted by federal health regulators; a shortage of supplies and material for the tests that may impact results, long incubation times for the infection, and the challenge of getting an adequate sample from a patient.
Most tests rely on a nasal swab that penetrates deep into the pharynx, the mucous membrane behind the nose and mouth. Even for a trained health worker, it can be difficult: It’s an invasive procedure that often causes patients to squirm. With a shortage of staff to conduct such widespread testing, in many cases people not typically trained to do so are collecting samples.
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