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COVID-19 tests: Which one is right for you?

Published: Jan. 12, 2022 at 4:40 PM EST
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ASHLAND, Ky. (WSAZ) -- Over-the-counter COVID-19 rapid tests, or antigen tests, are rapidly becoming more popular across the nation.

But they may not be as accurate as you might want to believe; and with COVID cases increasing, it has some doctors shying away from recommending them at all.

So what are the differences between an antigen and a PCR test?

“If somebody is looking to see if they’re negative before coming back to work and they know they’re five days out from having COVID, the antigen test is not a bad test to use,” said Dr. Richard Ford, chief medical officer at King’s Daughters Medical Center.

Dr. Ford says antigen tests are very accurate when they show a positive result, but the same cannot be said whenever the test result is negative.

“[Antigen tests are not] terribly sensitive, and unfortunately, sensitivity is sometimes something we really need,” Dr. Ford told WSAZ. “Unfortunately, we have a false negative test [rate] with antigen testing of around 50 percent.”

When health care workers at King’s Daughters Medical Center see a patient who has COVID symptoms, or suspect may have COVID, the patient is administered a PCR test, which are the nose or throat swab tests so many of us have waited in line for in a drive-thru setting. That’s because hospital staff need the accuracy the PCR test provides compared to the antigen test.

“A negative test that is a false negative test does a great deal of damage to our staff,” Dr. Ford said. “It could triple our hospital [numbers].”

Case in point, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, who originally took a rapid test Tuesday morning, which came back negative, just to find out his PCR results were positive later in the day.

“His protocol was spot on. You take a rapid test if you have one at hand and if it’s positive, you have your answer,” Dr. Ford said about Gov. Justice. “If you don’t test positive immediately, you isolate, get scheduled at your local hospital or health care facility to be tested, and protect the people you care about by not exposing them to the virus.”

If you’re going to buy an antigen test, Dr. Ford says you should buy one from a national chain pharmacy, and not any random store or place online.

Dr. Ford says the best protection against COVID-19 is to be fully vaccinated and get the booster when you’re eligible.

He says before Christmas, KDMC averaged 15 to 20 people in the hospital with COVID.

As of Wednesday afternoon, that number was 71.

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