Tests still have varying degrees of accuracy
Coronavirus testing in the United States has increased significantly in recent months, with daily probation count moving about 1.5 million in January. There are two categories of tests: PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests that are considered the gold standard and antigen tests less accurate.
PCR tests use a molecular process and are processed in a laboratory. Faster and cheaper antigen tests detect proteins on the surface of the virus. The fastest home tests, estimated to be about 90 percent accurate, use antigen technology.
PCR tests are your best bet to find out if you are infected, even though these results last longer than antigen results. Still, PCR tests can result in false negatives.
This is partly because the giant cotton swabs used in many of those tests may not take all the traces of the virus deep into your nasal cavity. The virus may have moved from your nose to your lungs or elsewhere, or the swab may not have been inserted enough.
But nasopharyngeal swabs, which collect samples from the back of the nose and throat, are still more reliable than throat invasions and less invasive nasal swabs.
A test may not be able to detect the virus early in its course
At the onset of an infection, the virus may not have reproduced enough to be detected. The false negative rate of PCR tests on the day of exposure is 100 percent, but drops to about 38 percent five days later as symptoms usually set in, according to an analysis published in Annals of Internal Medicine. The rate drops further, to about 20 percent, after another three days.
We still do not understand exactly when an infected person will start testing positive for the virus, Muge Cevik, a clinical lecturer in infectious diseases and medical virology at St. Louis University, told the Washington Post in December. Andrews. So there are situations when a person can come out negative, but can still be contagious.
If you think you have been exposed to the coronavirus but get a negative test result, you may want to get tested again within a few days. You also need to do self-quarantine while you wait for results.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest quarantine for 14 days but considers them acceptable 10 days if you have not experienced symptoms. The agency also says it is probably safe to leave your home after seven days if you have no symptoms and have received a negative test result.
You can come out negatively and get infected right after that
In addition to other limitations, a coronavirus test only captures a moment in time. You can get out of a testing center and immediately infect the virus. The test you just did will not reflect your new infection.
This limitation is especially important to keep in mind if you are planning to travel after learning the result of your test. An overcrowded airport terminal or restroom may expose you to the virus once you have concluded that a negative test means you are not infected.
Indoor collection is naturally dangerous and a negative test result does not tell the full story.
Natalie B. Compton, Melody Schreiber and William Wan contributed to this report.
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