How accurate are COVID-19 swab tests? WCPO 9 reporter's family members test positive, but not at the same time

Posted at 10:12 PM, Jun 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-18 06:29:53-04

Every day we see new cases of COVID-19 in the region and across the nation since the pandemic began in March. By this point, you may know someone impacted by it.

Nine hours away in my home state of Arkansas, my mom, dad, and brother have COVID-19 right now. It’s been a situation like none other, even including hospitalizations.

But none of them tested positive at the same time.

We found out my dad tested positive for COVID-19 on June 3, when he was already showing nearly all the symptoms days earlier. The rest of my household got tested: my brother tested positive, but my mom tested negative.

“Knowing that I was exposed and there was no reason why I shouldn’t have been positive, since everyone else in the house was positive,” my mother, Mia, said.

A week later, she noticed new symptoms.

“I just wasn’t feeling quite right. Sluggish, tired, weak,” she said.

She took the test again.

“When I got the results back two days later, it was negative. I’m like, ‘okay I guess it wasn’t that. Maybe I was just stressed.’”

Because my dad was in the hospital for several days, it wasn’t until the third test two days later that a positive result came back.

“That day, I just wasn’t feeling well and I went to the ER and they gave me another COVID test after I said I just tested negative.”

My mom then tested positive, so I wanted to know why it took three tests to get to this point.

Dr. Senu Apewokin, an infectious disease specialist from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, says there’s a 60-70% accuracy rate for the COVID-19 nose swab test.

“The whole process of COVID-19 testing is a very complex process that has multiple steps, and errors can occur in any of these steps, and that could lead to inaccurate results.”

Errors like the placement of the swab or the handling of the swab afterwards can all play a role. So in cases like my mom, who tested negative twice even though she had symptoms.

“There are going to be a number of people that are going to be missed by the test,” Apewokin said.

“I would suggest they behave as if the test was positive.”

Or, as in my mom’s case, get another test anyway.

“You know your body more than anyone else -- doctor, nurse, or whatever,” she said.