Whenever anyone raised any concerns about the way in which the White House was lax on wearing masks and social distancing, members of the administration immediately fired back by saying everyone was getting tested regularly. President Donald Trump raised that argument numerous times, including during the debate. But it turns out the White House gave itself a false sense of security by using rapid tests in a way that was never intended. The Abbott Laboratories test was used to test staff and others who came in contact with the president as a filter, and those who tested negative proceeded to go about their day without masks and with few other precautions. What administration officials ignored, though, is that the test is known to deliver incorrect results, particularly for people without symptoms.
The White House may have ignored that little crucial fact about the test that can give results in 15 minutes, but it wasn’t exactly hidden. When the Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use authorization for Abbott’s ID Now test, it made clear that it was to be used “within the first seven days of symptoms.” When it is used in people who don’t have symptoms, it can give a false negative in as many as 1 in 3 cases, notes the New York Times. “It’s helpful to keep in mind that tests discover the presence of coronavirus once there’s enough viral material in a person to be able to detect it,” John Koval, spokesman for Abbott Labs, said in an email to the Washington Post. “No test detects the virus immediately after the person becomes infected. There is no such thing as a 100 percent perfect and instantaneous test—for any disease.”
Beyond the specificity of any test in particular, experts say that testing can be part of a broader strategy to ward off the coronavirus but isn’t protection by itself. “I don’t think any experts recommend that you use medical screening tests as a replacement for social distancing, or masks, or other kinds of mitigation efforts,” Dr. Ben Mazer, an anatomic and clinical pathologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, told CNBC. “They all think this should be done in combination with masks, social distancing and all the other recommended measures.”