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Dozens of Long Island residents tested for coronavirus got false positives

Dozens of Nassau and Suffolk county residents tested

Dozens of Nassau and Suffolk county residents tested between July 9 and July 14 received false positives for COVID-19. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Seventy-four Long Island residents tested for COVID-19 over a five-day period earlier this month received false positive results, according to Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Sunrise Medical Laboratories in Hicksville said in a statement that the “isolated incident does not impact any patients who received a negative result during that time or testing performed at any other time or by any other facility.”

The impacted patients were tested between July 9 and July 14, according to the lab, which added that about 1.5% of patients tested in that period were affected. Sunrise did not say which doctors or urgent care centers use their labs. It added that there was a "possible COVID-19 specimen contamination issue."

Sunrise didn’t disclose how many tests it runs in week, or how many tests in total were impacted by the false positives. 

“Corrected reports were issued to providers caring for all affected patients on July 16 and 17, 2020,” the lab said in a statement. “After extensive consultation with the New York State Department of Health [NYSDOH], and out of an abundance of caution, we are offering retesting to all patients receiving the corrected report at no charge. We are currently working with providers to reach out to the affected patients and complete the retesting as soon as feasible.”

Suffolk County said about 68 residents were affected. Suffolk, for now, is treating the cases as positive.

"Out of an abundance of caution, the [Department of Health] will still treat them as positive cases until the 14-day window to become symptomatic concludes or they test negative," Derek Poppe, a spokesman for County Executive Steve Bellone, wrote in an email. "Our contact tracers will still follow up with them daily to check in."

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Nassau County spokesman Michael Fricchione said the county's health department is “aware of the six residents notified of receiving false positive test results from the private laboratory, and is in contact with these residents."

There have been reports of testing errors elsewhere. For example, the Connecticut Department of Public Health said Monday that the state laboratory found mistakes in the testing system that led to 90 false positives. Connecticut said many of those were for nursing home residents.

Over the weekend, Vermont officials said at least 30 patients received false positive results. 

Dr. Dwayne Breining, executive director of Northwell Health Labs, said false positives become a risk as more asymptomatic people are tested.

"Molecular testing is so sensitive," Breining said. "We've had a very small number of false positives as well. I can probably count them on one hand, but when it happens, we retest, and ask the person to isolate while we retest them and investigate."

Breining added that a vast majority of the test results are accurate.

COVID-19 tests are not perfect, in part, because the virus is new, said Alvin Tran, professor of public health at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut.

"There is no gold standard diagnostic test yet," Tran said. "But news like this shouldn't deter anyone from being tested, especially if they have symptoms."

Howard Austin, 56, of Smithtown said he was among those who received false positives from Sunrise, and was asked by state contact tracers to quarantine — until he got a follow-up message that was confounding.

“I received a call from Sunrise saying that I was actually negative,” Austin said. “I was stunned. I went a full week thinking I was positive.”

Austin said his daughter was also tested, but her test came back negative. He said his patient portal has been updated to reflect he tested negative.

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