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Test Negative for COVID-19? Keep That Mask On

Patti Singer

Tests for COVID-19 sometimes come back negative when the person later is found to have the illness. File photo

More than 1,000 people a day in Monroe County are being tested for COVID-19.

Are you among them?

If so, do you know what your result really means?

In the weeks since the state opened testing for anyone regardless of their occupation, the term false negative – once uttered only by public health experts – has entered the conversation.

While it has a scientific definition in relation to any illness, what it means in the age of COVID is keep your mask on, keeping washing your hands, and keep six feet apart.

Dr. Michael Mendoza held an online news conference July 23 to address confusion over testing – why it can take from hours to days for results to come back, and what those results are saying.

“Tests aren’t perfect,” he said. “When you have a negative test result, that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have the condition.”

A false negative is when a test comes back negative, but the person ends up with the illness.

“The implication of a false negative result is that the person who is taking the test may derive a false sense of security and with that false sense of security, they may be inclined to relax on precautions,” Mendoza said. “The safety of this community rests upon everybody taking precautions.”

Mendoza said that of people tested on the first day of symptoms, 38% may have a negative result.

The false negative may have to do with when you get tested. He said the test is most accurate eight days after a person has been infected. But with some people not showing any symptoms, it’s hard to know if or when you’ve been exposed.

“Please do not be falsely reassured if you have a negative test result,” he reiterated.

He said that negative test results are not permission to schedule playdates or go visiting, particularly to see older people and those who may be at higher risk for complications.

He said recent spikes in the numbers of women in their 20s who tested positive are likely from them having traveled or being in gatherings. On four days so far in July, the county reported between 10 and 16 women in that age group testing positive.

Mendoza said false positives also can be confusing. A positive test doesn’t mean a person is infectious that day, particularly if they don’t have symptoms. He said a test can come back positive weeks after the person has cleared the infection.

As for who should be tested, “If you have symptoms, we definitely want you to get tested,” he said. “If you work in a profession where you are at risk of exposing other people, we want you to get tested. Anybody outside of those, it’s fine to get tested.”

As for how often to get tested, Mendoza said weekly tests for people in high-risk situations is sufficient. He said a current shortage of the chemicals needed to process the test is causing delays in getting results. Tests performed at hospitals and on people who are about to undergo a procedure will be processed faster than those at community sites. He said the average time for results is two to three days.

The county tracks the number of tests by taking a three-day rolling average. As of July 22, that average was 1,276 per day. The state determines reopening status based on minimum number of tests, and Monroe County has met or exceeded that standard.

Since testing started, 99,436 tests have been performed. Some individuals have had multiple tests.

As for the burden of illness, the county is posting data on race and ethnicity every two weeks. As of July 15, the age-adjusted rate of cases among Blacks was 1,408 per 100,000 population. The hospitalization rate was 307 per 100,000 and the death rate was 63.4 per 100,000.

The rate of cases among Latinos was 892 per 100,000, the hospitalization were 204 per 100,000 and the deaths were 64 per 100,000.

By comparison, the case rates for Whites was 351 per 100,000, hospitalizations were 61 per 100,000 and deaths were 27 per 100,000.