As COVID-19 testing increases, experts warn of false negative results

'Every patient has to be treated as if they have the virus.'
Posted at 7:44 AM, Apr 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-03 07:45:06-04

DAVISON, Mich. (WXYZ) — The coronavirus testing bottleneck inside labs is finally starting to ease, which means people are getting test results back sooner. However, in some cases, experts say tests were coming back as false negatives.

False negatives can happen with many kinds of testing, and now hospital officials say they are seeing that with the coronavirus as well.

That's why it's so important if you have any symptoms at all to act as if you do have the virus.

"We don’t treat the test result, we treat the patient," said Bart Buxton CEO and president of McLaren Health Management Group.

He says that early testing for the coronavirus created a lot of challenges for health care workers.

"There was such a bottleneck – the early testing we were waiting sometimes 7 to 10 days," Buxton said.

He added that about 20 percent of patients tested early on received false negatives for coronavirus tests that were sent to outside labs.

"We sent them out, and they initially came back negative," Buxton said. "We tested them again and they were positive. We continue to treat the patient and treat the symptoms. So to me, and I think to everyone else in health care, that’s part of normal business."

Buxton says the same thing can happen with flu testing.

"Every patient has to be treated as if they have the virus," he said.

Buxton also says now that hospitals have the equipment to process their own coronavirus tests, they're getting results in two to three days.

"We can run approximately 200 tests a day," Buxton said.

There’s another phase of testing coming in this pandemic called antibody testing. Right now, labs are doing what’s called antigen testing where they’re analyzing particles of the active virus in your system.

Buxton says that soon labs will test your blood to see if you have antibodies to the virus.

"Once you get antibodies, your body has already shown that it’s beginning to deal with the virus and it can deal with it a little bit better," Buxton said. "And that’s really the type of stuff that’s going to help us with vaccinations in the future, and also treatment."

Buxton says the novel coronavirus isn't really novel anymore, and that we're going to have to live with it for a long time to come.

"This is not over," he said. "We need to continue to be socially very conscious about what we do because that’s what going to limit the spread of this disease."

As testing turnaround time gets better, health experts say testing will continue to be key to helping stop spread of the virus.