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False Negatives Raise Doctors' Doubts About Coronavirus Tests

A surprising number of patients have obvious symptoms but still test negative, say doctors

Doctors test hospital staff with flu-like symptoms for coronavirus in set-up tents outside St. Barnabas hospital in the Bronx, New York, on March 24.

Doctors test hospital staff with flu-like symptoms for coronavirus in set-up tents outside St. Barnabas hospital in the Bronx, New York, on March 24.

Photographer: Misha Friedman/Getty Images

False-negative results from coronavirus tests are becoming an increasing concern, say doctors trying to diagnose patients and get a grip on the outbreak, as a surprising number of people show up with obvious symptoms only to be told by the tests that they don’t have the disease.

While still more research is necessary to determine the true prevalence of such false-negative results, experts agree that the problem is significant. False negatives not only impede the diagnosis of disease in individual patients and an accurate understanding of the extent of its proliferation, but also risk patients who think they aren't ill further spreading the virus.

Some doctors described situations in which patients show up with clear symptoms such as a cough and fever, test negative, and then test positive later on.  It’s a particular issue in New York, where the disease has likely infected far more than the 174,000 people confirmed through limited testing. At Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, doctor Jeremy Sperling says so-called false-negative tests are now a frequent occurrence in the emergency room.

“If a patient presents with classic Covid symptoms, but tests negative, they’ve still got Covid,” said Sperling, who is the chair of emergency medicine at the hospital. “There is just nothing else it could be in New York City in 2020.”