Tens of thousands have tested negative for COVID-19 in Pa., results could be false negatives

Tens of thousands have tested negative for COVID-19 in Pa., results could be false negatives

PITTSBURGH — More than 70,000 people in Pennsylvania have tested negative for coronavirus, but 11 Investigates has learned some of those tests could be false negatives.

With more than 1,000 confirmed cases in western Pennsylvania alone, it’s clear the coronavirus is spreading rapidly.

That doesn't include the possibility some of those tests are not showing an accurate result.

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Very early research from China found the most common coronavirus tests could give false-negative results around 30% of the time.

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It's why doctors are now telling patients to self-isolate, even if they test negative until their symptoms are gone.

“There are cases where every test misses people who actually have the disease. Even if it's just the flu, you should still stay away from people,” said Dr .Alan Wells, the UPMC Clinical Laboratories medical director.

Part of the issue surrounds how many tests are out there:

According to the FDA, 28 diagnostic coronavirus tests have been approved, with the agency relaxing standards to make more tests available quickly. Some of those approvals have only taken a day -- much faster than the typical process.

“I’ve certainly never seen anything like it,” said Duquesne university professor Alison Colbert, who specializes in public health.

She says the rapid spread of coronavirus has forced medical experts to weigh the cost and benefit of approving tests before they've been fully vetted.

“By all accounts, the benefit is the more information we can have about the spread of this disease the better,” Colbert said.

While the results of a coronavirus test are critical to track the spread, it has little impact on how patients are treated.

“We aren't waiting to start medications for a test result. It's not like when we pick the right chemotherapy for cancer,” Wells said.

A spokesman with the Pennsylvania Department of Health said they are using test kits provided by the federal government, and while they don’t have any data, they also have no concerns over their accuracy.

Pa. Department of health coronavirus update (4/6/20)