WSAZ Investigates | False positive COVID-19 tests

Published: Aug. 31, 2020 at 7:00 PM EDT
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BOYD COUNTY, Ky. (WSAZ) -- In the United States, more than 84 million COVID-19 tests have been conducted since the start of the pandemic.

Just over 7 million have come back positive, but unless you are one of those cases, it’s hard to grasp the impacts the virus can have on your life.

It became a reality for WSAZ’s Chad Hedrick on July 24 when he tested positive for the virus.

“I was stunned,” said Chad. “I didn’t have any symptoms. I had been super careful. I wore a mask, washed my hands. I was living my life, but I took precautions.”

Chad immediately quarantined and worked with the Ashland-Boyd County Health Department to contact trace.

A few hours later a release from the health department listed Chad’s case as the 136th case of coronavirus in Boyd County.

“I was very anxious those first hours,” Chad said. “It was a lot to process because I felt fine. I didn’t have a single symptom my entire quarantine.”

After Chad’s quarantine was up, he went for the antibody test.

“I struggled with accepting that I had the virus. How did I feel fine, when so many suffer and even die from this? So I called a doctor because if I had had the virus I knew I would likely have the antibodies. I knew the test would give me some answers and closure.”

Four days later, the antibody test came back negative for any trace of COVID-19.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are several reasons why Chad’s COVID test was positive, while his antibody test was negative.

The CDC website says the first reason may be because Chad never had the virus to begin with.

They say it could also be because it takes one to three weeks after the infection for the body to develop antibodies. Chad’s test was done two and a half weeks after he was tested for COVID.

The CDC says it can even take longer for patients to develop the antibodies, and some do not develop them at all.

After Chad got his results, he reached out to the Ashland-Boyd County Health Department, asking if this meant his case would be considered a false positive. He says an official replied back with a link to the CDC article referenced above.

Chad says he then asked for clarification on if his case would be removed from the county data or considered recovered, he says he never got a response.

That’s when he requested an interview with Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear to ask about the accuracy of COVID-19 tests and data.

“When we are on the battlefield, which we are, when we are at war, the means in which you fight that battle are never perfect,” Beshear said. “So what we have in the Commonwealth through the Department for Public Health is a process where the data is repeatedly audited, and repeatedly checked to make sure it is as accurate as it can be. Nothing is going to be 100% accurate ... There is still so much we are learning. But it’s important people get tested and trust the test.”

Chad has yet to get an official answer about where his case stands in the tally. In July, more than two dozen false positives were reported at UK Healthcare in Lexington. Officials say that was because of a software issue, and those cases were removed from state data.

Last week, more than 70 false positives were reported from testing on NFL players.

Earlier in August, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine tested positive, but two immediate follow up tests were negative.

According to Harvard Medical School, the rate of false positives across the country runs at 5 percent or lower. The rate of false negatives runs from 2 percent, to as high as 37 percent.

“You look at the numbers on the whole,” Beshear said. “We’ve had over 40,000 positives in Kentucky, we’ve lost over 800 people to this. There has got to be a handful of tests, whether it is how they are administered or how they’re run, might not end up being fully accurate. But the data on the whole is that there’s so much of it. But at this point we know there is a virus, and we know someone who has suffered from it.”

“I still wear my mask,” Chad said. “I think I’m even more cautious because I don’t want to go through that again. I feel bad for families who have lost loved ones and are still struggling with this virus.”

Because his antibody test was negative, that means Chad cannot donate his plasma to help patients who are struggling with coronavirus. The CDC says over 40,000 patients have been treated from plasma donations of other COVID patients.

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