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Lexington physician explains why false positives happen

Published: Aug. 8, 2020 at 11:10 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - A Lexington Physician says it is possible to receive a false positive COVID-19 test result.

But he says it may actually be more common to get a negative one.

While scrolling through social media, it can sometimes be hard to know what's true and what's not. And information about the coronavirus is no exception.

"If you have pretty classic symptoms, especially the cough, the fever, or shortness of breath, and your test comes back negative, that negative means nothing," said Emergency Physician, Dr. Ryan Stanton.

Dr. Stanton said there are a few rumors he's seen circulating that he can clear up. He said doctors are seeing false positive and false negative COVID-19 results.

"I've dealt with a ton of people who have had negative tests two or three times then the last one is positive when they've had classic COVID symptoms," Dr. Stanton said.

Dr. Stanton said the tests are so new, that sometimes if you have the symptoms and you're tested too early on, they can't always detect COVID-19. He said go ahead and assume you're positive until you can get tested again. But some people may also get a false positive test result.

"That's the sensitivity, so if the disease is there, the sensitivity is the chance the test will be positive if the disease is present."Meaning the tests, typically called PCR tests, sometimes pick up on other coronaviruses, like the common cold. Dr. Stanton said while false positives happen, they aren't that common.

"We feel like we're missing more than we are having false positives. So if you have symptoms, and you test negative, that doesn't mean you need to go out business as usual," said Dr. Stanton.

Dr. Stanton said newer tests, called antigen tests, are coming out now. He said these tests are designed to more rapidly detect the virus.

Dr. Stanton also said there really isn’t much difference between the rapid tests and tests that give you your results more slowly. He said they’ve both proved to have some issues with giving false negative or false positive results.

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