Doctor at UTHSC says COVID-19 tests can give false-negative results

Updated: Mar. 30, 2020 at 10:49 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - As of Monday morning, more than 4,300 people had been tested for coronavirus in Shelby County. Only 379 of those tests came back positive for the virus. But a negative result doesn’t mean you don’t have Coronavirus.

Many patients that show up to testing sites have typical COVID-19 symptoms like cough and fever.

“Yeah, there is some overlap with a lot of other viruses in the community," said Dr. Jon McCullers, dean of Clinical Affairs at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

McCullers says there are other respiratory illnesses prevalent in our community like the flu, rhinovirus or the human metapneumovirus that people may be confusing with the novel coronavirus.

Still, there may be another reason for your negative test results.

“A test that is 100% in the laboratory, maybe 70 or 75% accuracy in the real world," said McCullers.

McCullers says a false-negative is not unusual for any test.

With the COVID-19 test, he says sometimes when you get tested is the key.

“If I go get a test with someone who just started to get sick and so they’re infected but they don’t have much virus in them maybe it’s negative, but maybe if I test them three days later, it’s going to be positive because there’s a lot more virus in them at that point,” said McCullers.

McCullers says, unlike other respiratory illnesses COVID-19 patients tend to get worse by day 5 or 6 rather than improving. He also says even if you suspect you got a false negative there really isn’t any reason to be re-tested unless you end up in the hospital.

But you may want to quarantine yourself away from others while you’re not feeling well just to be on the safe side.

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