Kendra Boroff believes she contracted the coronavirus on her 71st birthday, Feb. 20, when her family went out for a celebratory dinner, perhaps from their waiter, who was coughing into his elbow. Four days later, she developed a fever and a raging sore throat.
“You feel like you’re suffocating,” recalled Boroff, a real estate agent in Maineville, Ohio. “You cough and breathe with the top fourth or maybe less of your chest, because everything else is in a vise.”
Over the course of the next 3 weeks, as Boroff started getting chills and nausea, a series of doctors would suggest that it could be the common cold, bronchitis or pneumonia. She tested negative for the flu, and her chest x-rays showed signs of lung damage, including white patches called “ground-glass opacities” that are common in COVID-19 cases. By March 7, she was pretty sure it was COVID-19, but she couldn’t get a test until she arrived at the emergency room at the University of Cincinnati Health Center on March 19. She had a 103 degree fever and her oxygen levels were plummeting, so the doctors admitted her immediately.
Nearly a week later, as Boroff’s condition was stabilizing, the test results came back: negative.
Boroff was flummoxed, but her physician was clear that she had the virus, no matter what her test said.
“ ‘This is my diagnosis,’ ” she recalled him saying. “ ‘There is no other explanation.’ ”
Tests turning up negative even when all signs point to COVID-19 has been a common experience in American hospitals over the past month, public health experts have told ProPublica. It’s unclear what proportion of these negative results are inaccurate – known as “false negatives” – and whether that’s due to some external factor, like bad sample collection, or because of an issue inherent in the tests’ design.
Neither the major test manufacturers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would say how common false negatives are. While the FDA requires test makers to report any known instances of false negatives as a condition of granting them provisional approval, known as emergency use authorizations, no such reports are visible in a database the agency maintains for that purpose.
Without much data on how COVID-19 tests are performing in the real world, concerns are mounting that a lack of accurate testing will make it more difficult for America to relax social distancing, as the ability to track and trace new infections will be critical for any strategy to reopen the country.
Those warnings have reached Capitol Hill, where Texas Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett had heard from a doctor in his district about the accuracy of the tests. On Thursday, he and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut sent a letter to the FDA demanding more data about the prevalence of false negatives in both the diagnostic tests currently in widespread use, as well as inaccuracies in the coming wave of rapid blood tests that detect immunity once the infection has passed.
“I’m very concerned about it,” Doggett told ProPublica. Too many false results, he worries, could lead to a new surge of infections when people go back to work or are allowed to gather in bars, sports arenas, and restaurants. “They have to monitor this very closely to ensure that we’re not creating false expectations, and in the process ending up with an epidemic that is even worse than the one we have now.”