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No, a negative coronavirus test does not mean you can socialize safely

Before Thanksgiving, Americans aren’t strangers to the plan. But this year, as they prepare to dissolve salt water and pie crust in turkey, people across the country are waiting for something special: the coronavirus test they want is to interact with their loved ones. Can be cleared to.

Many people think that a negative coronavirus test is a ticket to socializing freely without precautions. But scientists and doctors say this is dangerously going in the wrong direction. This is one of the precautions, but it does not deny the need for others, such as quarantine, masking, and distance adjustment.

The main reason is that the test provides information about the level of the virus at a particular point in time. The person may be infected, but does not yet have enough virus to enroll in the test. Or you can get infected hours or days after being tested. Also, the accuracy of the test is not 100%.

“If you require all guests to email negative test results before Thanksgiving dinner, the risk of occurrence is definitely reduced, but not perfect,” said Covid’s strategy and Dr. KJ Seung, who is responsible for the policy, said. At Partners in Health. Still, he said, this is a common misconception that contact tracers hear when talking to people.

Experts agreed that the test was very helpful in one thing. If someone gets a positive test, they know they will stay home and quarantine. However, while negative tests are useful, they are not sufficient, said Dr. Esther Chu, an emergency physician and professor at Oregon Health & Science University.

The test “excludes people who are positive and should never be there,” she said. “Negative tests basically don’t change anything about behavior. Still, wear a mask, stay away, and avoid indoors if possible.”

Different coronavirus tests have different information.

Laboratory tests that rely on a technique called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) can detect the virus when it is present even at very low levels. However, it can take several days for the results to be returned, leaving some time for someone to publish. Antigen testing is faster, cheaper, and more convenient — you can get results in minutes — but when you’re deficient in the virus, it’s easy to miss it. To get an emergency permit from the Food and Drug Administration, only 80% of the infections detected by PCR on the coronavirus antigen test need to be detected. Many rapid tests are also not approved for use in asymptomatic individuals.

Paige Larkin, a clinical microbiologist at North Shore, said that people who test negative for antigens may test positive for PCR, and if they test negative for antigens, someone mistakes them on their way to Thanksgiving dinner. It states that it may give a sense of security. She is Chicago’s University Health System, which specializes in diagnosing infectious diseases.

“The negative result is a snapshot of time,” said Dr. Larkin. “It indicates that the virus was not detected at the moment it was tested. It does not mean that it is not infected.”

After invading the human body, the virus can take several days to accumulate, during which time there may not be enough virus to test to detect it. However, the person can still be infected or transmitted in the meantime. A person who was negative one day can become positive just one day or even an hour later. People can spread the virus in the days before they first feel sick, and even if they are asymptomatic, they can spread the virus.

Natalie Dean, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida, said: “The challenge for individuals is that today’s negative tests do not mean they will be negative tomorrow or the next day.

Taking multiple tests over the course of a few days will give you a clearer answer. However, experts warned that there is no test that can clearly determine whether a person infected with the coronavirus is contagious or no longer poses a risk of infection to others.

The October outbreak at the White House is a good example of what can happen if a group of people rely heavily on testing and ignore other strategies to limit the spread of the virus.

In an informal survey of 670 epidemiologists, only 6% said they could comfortably spend time indoors with others without precautions if the virus was recently tested negative. .. 29% said they would do so if everyone was away using masks. And even if the test is negative, 64% say it’s uncomfortable to spend time indoors with people who don’t live with them.

Still, it’s impractical to avoid others for months. People need to work, meet their basic needs, and are anxious to connect with family and friends. According to experts, risk is a spectrum rather than a dual, and there are ways to reduce it.

“Don’t make perfection a good enemy,” said Dr. Anthony S. Forch, a top US infectious disease expert, in an interview with The New York Times with Elizabeth Rosenthal. “If everyone is tested before sitting together for dinner, the risk you have is dramatically reduced. It may never be zero, but we are completely risk-free. I don’t live in society. “

But Dr. Forch never sees his three adult daughters at this Thanksgiving.

Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and immunologist at Harvard University, said that at this point in the pandemic, the risk of coronavirus cannot be expected to be completely eliminated. He compared it to the risk of a car accident. To avoid all the risks, people will not get in the car at all. Seat belts, airbags, and traffic law compliance all reduce risk, but not everyone is completely safe. Also, don’t forget to use your seat belt just because your car has an airbag. Coronavirus precautions such as testing, distance, and masking work in the same way, he said.

Dr. Mina said she could combine a negative test with a two-week quarantine, if possible, to openly discuss the risks and willingness to participate with older family members before meeting with others. .. At rallies, risk mitigation strategies may include shortening dinners, hosting events outdoors, wearing masks when not eating, and hugging the air instead of touching, he said. Said.

Jeffrey Townsend, a professor of biostatistics at the Graduate School of Public Health, said avoiding contact with others for more than a week before being tested is a powerful tool. Not only does it reduce exposure, but it also gives more opportunities for people infected with the virus to reach detectable levels, his study found.

“We can do more quarantine, which is very helpful,” he said. “But testing at the exit is really helpful, and it really drops your chances.”

Professor Townsend celebrates this Thanksgiving at home with his wife and children. He is studying testing protocols, but he has never been tested for coronavirus himself because he stayed home throughout the pandemic except for urgent need.

No, a negative coronavirus test does not mean you can socialize safely

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