Unreliable COVID Tests Put Both Us and Science at Risk | Opinion

We already know that when it comes to COVID testing, the PCR test is not perfectly reliable, reporting false positives as well as false negatives. We also know that antigen testing is not entirely accurate either, with false negatives possible. But so far the antigen test has been considered the least likely to lead to a false positive.

Research appearing last week reaffirmed that view, noting that the numbers of false positives on antigen tests are "very low," .05 percent, and that they could be caused by problems in the manufacture of a particular "batch" of the test. But for people like me who think they may be among those with false positives, that's hardly reassuring. Less reassuring, and more confusing, was the observation that "aside from issues with the batch, false-positives are possible due to the timing of the test (i.e., too early or too late in the infectious stage)."

Right before the holidays, despite being fully vaccinated and boostered, I tested positive for COVID-19, and I had complete confidence in the results. My PCR test and my antigen test concurred, and so did my body—with its scratchy throat and eruption of sniffles and sneezes. My temperature, usually a reptilian 97.2, never went beyond 98, though by six days after my first sneeze, Christmas Eve, I was back to my normal 97.2 with my symptoms on the decline.

As someone who falls on the "believes-in-science" side of the current political divide, I did the right thing: I canceled Christmas dinner, rescheduling it for New Year's Day. And by Dec. 31, I was 13 days beyond my first sneeze, symptom free and my temperature had been normal for a full week. According to the CDC's post-Christmas update, I was good to go. No mask required, and apparently no test needed, either.

Still, I made an appointment for an antigen test on Dec. 31, just to dot the "i" and cross the "t" in, well, "antigen."

"Why are you even here?" the technician asked somewhat incredulously when I explained my request. I told him I was having guests in my home for dinner, and I just wanted to be sure. I also knew that all the guests would be doing their own antigen test beforehand, which in some quarters has already become as expected as wiping your possibly muddy shoes on the host's doormat before you go in.

Drive-thru COVID-19 testing site
Health care workers collect nasal swab samples at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site. PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images

Fifteen minutes later when the doctor came to tell me the results, he was perplexed, "You're positive," he said, adding that he'd even given me the antigen test that in his experience yielded the most false negatives. I was too stunned to follow up on that piece of information, but someone should.

Should I cancel dinner? I wasn't sure, though all the guests were as vaccinated and boostered as I was. When I shared my news and follow up question, one of the guests suggested I would be "tyrannical" if I canceled, and that he should be allowed to make up his own mind. On the other hand, another guest, while recognizing that long-haul COVID is less common in those with breakthrough cases, politely warned me that another guest might be at serious risk if she caught COVID at all. Wasn't I putting her at risk?

I believe in science when its instruments are reliable, and I remember with anxiety the days when we knew so little about COVID-19 that we rinsed each stalk of celery (which if we could, we'd had delivered) before we put it in the fridge, and we wiped down the mail we got with a sponge.

When tests mislead us because there's just not enough known with certainty, we're all in the dark, thrown back on little more than our own sense of risk, which is larger in some than in others and not a reliable scientific instrument of assessment. Among my friends, none short on logic or knowledge, there were those who with some degree of embarrassment, said they could not see me as long as I tested positive. In the end, I did cancel dinner, even though I was pretty certain my antigen positive was wrong according to logic, science and my body. I didn't want to be right, I wanted all the people I love to share a meal.

I finally tested negative last week—Day 17, but who's counting? Though even today, a friend said he was hesitant to come to my home. With new diseases not fully understood, it's easy to designate certain bodies as pariah-bodies as my friend did mine. It reminded me of how as AIDS emerged, but before it was understood, many anxious but otherwise reasonable people stigmatized the "4 H's": Haitians, hemophiliacs, homosexuals and heroin addicts. I've now rescheduled dinner for Groundhog Day, and am hoping it is shadow-free, in all ways. By then, my friends and I will undoubtedly have talked our differences through to a comfortable resolution.

But right now with science so politicized, the body politic is at far greater risk than mine. And it is a risk we cannot afford.

Elizabeth Stone, an English professor at Fordham University, is an award-winning essayist who often writes about health issues.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.