After a false negative in Green’s office, accuracy of ‘surge’ tests questioned

Updated: Sep. 15, 2020 at 5:14 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - A member of the lieutenant governor’s security detail who tested positive for COVID-19 had tested negative 72 hours earlier after taking a free “surge” test.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green told Hawaii News Now that the false negative is a concern.

And he urged anyone who is feeling sick to get tested for COVID-19 — even if they previously tested negative after taking a free test through the surge testing program.

The free surge tests were given to the city by the federal government.

More than 60,000 tests were administered in large testing events over 14 days. So far, 295 positive cases have been reported of the results that have come back so far. The low positivity rate delighted public officials, who said it was evidence that the coronavirus was not as widespread in the community as feared.

But now there are growing concerns about the testing program’s accuracy.

Dr. Lorrin Pang, Maui District health officer, said he believes as many as 50% of the people who have coronavirus and got tested in the surge program may have received false negatives, erroneously indicating that they did not have the virus.

In other words, he said, the testing could have missed hundreds of infections. He worries getting a negative test might give people a false sense of security.

Pang originally wanted the same test that was used for surge testing to be used at sites in Maui County but now has changed his mind.

He said the problem with the tests is that they are not as sensitive as those administered in a healthcare setting. Drive-thru testing also means that patients wouldn’t have been evaluated for symptoms.

Another problem: The swabs are done by the patient and are not pushed all the way back into the nasal cavity which, Pang said, has the highest concentration of the virus.

Green agreed with the concerns.

“If people are having any symptoms whatsoever or were a close contact with anyone that was COVID positive, they must get a confirmatory test,” said Green. “It’s just the right thing to do to make sure they are not out there walking around spreading COVID.”

Green spoke to HNN from his apartment, where he is recovering from COVID-19.

He tested positive on Friday night after apparently contracting the virus from a member of his security detail — but not the one who got the false negative.

So far, only Green and the two members of his security detail have tested positive for the virus in his office. Eleven other employees have tested negative.

Additionally, Green’s wife and two children have also tested negative.

Pang originally wanted the same tests to be used in Maui County, but changed his mind. He said he urged the state to use a more sensitive test instead.

“When I brought this up to the Department of Health, they said that one is hard to get and expensive. Why do you think it’s hard to get, because it’s good and why do you think it’s expensive? But if you’re going to do all this drive-through testing, for $40,000 more, give them a good test."

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told Hawaii News Now that it has not been made aware of any false positives or false negatives at the surge testing sites in Hawaii.

However, the department also said in a statement:

“If you test negative, you probably were not infected at the time your sample was collected. The test result only means that you did not have COVID-19 at the time of testing.”

The city also pointed out that Green’s security guard may not have qualified as a false negative if the second test was taken days later, stating that a false negative would be someone who initially received a negative result and immediately tested again and received a positive result. Therefore, he could’ve been infected between the first and second test, the city said.

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