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How can I avoid getting a false negative COVID-19 test result?

COVID-19 testing
Occasionally, a person can test negative for COVID-19 but test positive a few days later. A University Hospitals doctor says rapid at-home tests are most accurate when the person is symptomatic. She recommends getting a hospital or lab test for more accurate results.

The BA.5 variant is spreading across Northeast Ohio and the share of people testing positive in Cuyahoga, Lorain, Summit and Mahoning counties is nearly one in five, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That means many people are once again turning to testing — particularly at-home tests — to make decisions about whether to go out and whether to wear masks.

Unfortunately, at-home COVID-19 tests are less accurate at detecting the BA.5 variant than tests used in doctor’s offices and hospitals, according to research from Harvard University.

But experts say there are steps you can take to improve accuracy and prevent getting a false negative on a COVID-19 test.

“One strategy that’s often used is serial testing, meaning testing more than once on consecutive days using the antigen test," said the Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Daniel Rhoads. An antigen test is an at-home test.

Making sure you get a good sample to put into the at-home test is important, Rhoads said.

“What tests are good at detecting are a lot of virus, so the antigen tests are going to be positive if there’s a lot of virus there, so a good sample is helpful,” he said.

That's how user error can make at-home tests less accurate, said Dr. Amy Edwards of University Hospitals. The tests rely on the person scraping the back of their nose, which can be difficult to do by yourself.

“If you’re willing to do it, you can do it. But if you’re not willing to do it, then you should just go to the doctor," she said. "If you’re just going to take like a quick little... swab of your nose, you’re wasting whatever money you spent on that test.”

ideastream's health team is answering as many questions as possible about COVID-19, with help from local experts in a range of fields. You can send us your questions with our online form, through our social media group, or call us at 216-916-6476. We'll keep the answers coming on our website and on the air.

Lisa Ryan is a health reporter at Ideastream Public Media.