Why testing negative for COVID before Thanksgiving doesn't guarantee safety | KOB 4

Why testing negative for COVID before Thanksgiving doesn't guarantee safety

Joy Wang
Created: November 18, 2020 10:18 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — State leaders and medical experts have reiterated time and time again to skip the large Thanksgiving gatherings this year. But what if everyone who’s gathering just tested negative for COVID-19? 

As one doctor explained, COVID-19 tests still have limitations. 


“We use testing to diagnose COVID infections, and that's its real value,” said Dr. Jeff Salvon-Harman, Presbyterian Chief Patient Safety Officer and Infection Control Director. “Testing is not quite as accurate amongst those who are not displaying symptoms of infection, but more important than that is testing only tells you at one point in time what your COVID status is. So you could have had an exposure yesterday, and still be in what we call the incubation phase and not displaying symptoms, but also not able to detect infection from a test because it's too soon.”

In other words, there are no loopholes to guarantee you’re COVID-free before heading to a Thanksgiving gathering. The virus can still be spread during the incubation phase. 

“The Department of Health recommends that celebrating the holidays this year really needs to be done in a safe manner. The safest is to celebrate with the family that you live with, and not to have people outside your own home come in to celebrate with you,” said Dr. Chad Smelser, a state epidemiologist. 

Health experts said testing is most effective for those who have COVID infection symptoms, rather than for those who don’t have symptoms but know they’ve had a high-risk exposure. 

“COVID testing is not predictive. It can't tell us whether we're likely to become symptomatic in the near future. It can't tell us if we had an infection that cleared a week ago, so it's a really incomplete picture,” Dr. Salvon-Harman said.

“When a test is performed. It gives you a good indication of what's going on with you at that time. So when the test is taken, unfortunately, when once you're exposed you can develop symptoms and become ill and spread the virus to others up to 14 days after that exposure. So if you test on one day you might very well become positive the next day, or three days from then when you're celebrating with your family,” Smelser added. 

There’s also concerns about false positives or false negatives. Dr. Salvon-Harmon said not all tests are created equal. 

“We can see negatives because you're not infected. We could see negatives because you're still incubating, and it hasn't really taken hold, so you're not shedding that virus yet, or we could see negatives because the quality of the specimen that was collected isn't quite good enough, it didn't collect enough mucus, even though there is infection there,” he said.

Even if you’ve had COVID before, there’s still a potential risk for you and those around you. 

“We've had that hard discussion with our loved ones that we won't be seeing them this holiday season,” Smelser said. “We want to be able to see them next holiday season.

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