Take a COVID-19 test to see family or friends? Good intentions come with risks, warn experts

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See elderly grandparents. On the way to a chalet. Gathering between friends and family.These are among the reasons some Canadians are now choosing to be tested for COVID-19, even if they have no symptoms, in the hopes of having some peace of mind to expand their social network – but it’s an approach that experts say comes with risks.

Tatiana Kunitskaya, a mother of two in Mississauga, Ont., Was tested after the family of one of her youngest daughter’s friends requested it. The test was a condition for the girls to go to a chalet together.

The hope, she explains, was to make sure the girl did not bring the disease home to her older relatives – an issue Kunitskaya was not initially worried about, since her family took precautions for months.

“I did this mainly for the peace of mind of the person on the other side who asked for it,” she said.

“You have to be smart and respectful, not just for your family, but for other families who don’t want to be exposed. ”

Ann Sanderson, a Toronto-based freelance artist and mother of a three-year-old daughter, says getting tested was a recent decision so she could visit her parents in Stratford, Ont. The couple are aging, she says, and her father has heart disease.

“I was feeling a little paranoid,” Sanderson told CBC News.

Even though Sanderson’s family didn’t “take any risks” up front, including staying home largely and ordering all of their groceries online, she believed a negative test result would help confirm that she didn’t. was not sick.

“I don’t know if young people are going to get tested and think that they are fine forever, or that they will never get it,” she added. “It would be my concern: for people to think the test is 100% accurate, and it certainly isn’t.

Experts agree that this is the major risk of getting tested before social gatherings: the test itself can give you a negative result quite often, even if you are actually infected with the new coronavirus.

Testing can give a “false sense of security”

“It can give people a false sense of security,” warned infectious disease specialist Dr Dominik Mertz, associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

The negative test means that at the time you take the test there is no detectable virus in your nose, he says – with the limitation that it can be a false negative when, for various reasons, it is not. there is not enough virus in the sample for a “positive” result.

A healthcare worker takes a drive-through COVID-19 assessment center test at Etobicoke General Hospital in Toronto. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press)

The timing of the test plays a key role, according to research. A recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins, for example, found that people were much more likely to get a false negative test early in their infection.

Even the best case scenario – testing people about three days after symptoms first appeared – had a 20% false negative rate, meaning that one in five people infected with the virus was considered negative instead.

“It’s not a test that gives you the answer to whether or not you’ve been infected,” Mertz said.

“You may be incubating. If you were infected yesterday and tested today, you will probably test negative… If you see someone in a few days you can be contagious. “

The results only show the “period in time”

Despite the drawbacks, expanding testing guidelines in many regions during the pandemic means more people can now get tested for a variety of reasons.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford announced the change in May, marking the first time the province has promoted screening for people without symptoms.

“If you are worried if you have COVID-19, or if you have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19 – even if you don’t have symptoms – please go for a test,” said Ford at the time.

Farrah Merali of CBC examines what to expect when tested for COVID-19. 3:15

The province has also since implemented new screening policies for long-term care homes, allowing visitors inside if they can “verbally attest” to having tested negative for COVID-19 in the past. two previous weeks.

Mertz says the policy can send conflicting messages about the value of testing, which also doesn’t prevent you from getting infected at any time in the future.

“We have to recognize that a test is imperfect,” said Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto medical officer of health. “It informs you of your situation at a given time. ”

Still muddy the waters? Some people never have classic symptoms of COVID-19 like a fever or cough, even if they are infected. This means that a negative test result could mislead you even more if you actually carry the virus without any telltale signs.

Residents are “responsible”, says Minister of Health

Despite this, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott praised residents for taking the extra step of getting tested before seeing their loved ones, suggesting they were “responsible” for doing so.

However, she did not respond to a CBC News survey on whether the province should provide more information on the potential for false negatives.

Elliott and Ford also urged people to continue to follow public health guidelines alongside all efforts to get tested.

“The rule of thumb is to ensure your social distancing, wear some kind of face mask, and stay away from large gatherings and large crowds,” Ford said Wednesday.

Mertz points out that while most people who go for testing have good intentions, the results can only provide minimal or misleading information about whether or not a person is actually infected. This means that even people who test negative need to protect themselves and others.

“Regardless of what the test result shows,” he said, “you must behave in a reasonable manner”.

Kunitskaya and Sanderson claim that getting tested hasn’t changed their behavior beyond finally seeing family and close friends.

“I wasn’t going to be a rider to get tested – then go to a party,” Sanderson said.

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