Indeterminate test results spur COVID-19 confusion

People are seen waiting in line at the COVID-19 Assessment Centre at Richmond Road Diagnostics & Treatment Centre on Friday, July 17, 2020.

Breanna Excell decided to go get a COVID-19 test last week, like hundreds of thousands of Albertans before her. A client at her work had developed symptoms consistent with the novel coronavirus. Even though she was asymptomatic, she decided to get tested for peace of mind.

But unlike most Albertans who get tested for COVID-19, Excell’s test result wasn’t a simple positive or negative.

“I got a phone call a couple days later from a person, and I thought, ‘Am I positive?’ But she just said I was ‘indeterminate,’ which I didn’t even know was a possibility,” Excell said.

She was told that since she was asymptomatic, she didn’t need to self-isolate, but that she could go get tested again.

But on Saturday, Excell received a second call, this time from the Alberta Health Services Infectious Disease Clinic, giving her the indeterminate diagnosis once more and telling her that getting retested was now a strong recommendation.

“I understand that things happen but I think it’s mostly concerning that I’m pretty well-versed in science and medicine and I didn’t know this was something that could happen with a COVID test, and I don’t think a lot of people know,” she said.

Alberta Health said indeterminate test results, as well as false-positives and false-negatives, occur “very rarely,” but did not provide specifics.

Indeterminate tests can be caused when a sample does not meet sensitivity thresholds of testing assays.

“No laboratory test is 100 per cent perfect. There are multiple factors involved in achieving accurate results within the lab, including the quality of the sample collected or stage of disease when sampling occurred,” Alberta Health said in a statement.

“This is not only true with COVID-19 testing, but is applicable for all laboratory diagnostics testing.”

Though Excell is still able to work, she said she particularly wants to get a retest completed so that she can return to volunteering at a city hospital. When she tried to book a retest Sunday, however, there were no available testing times through AHS for the next week.

“It’s just hard to get a test in general, which makes it frustrating for a lot of people, I think,” she said.

Alberta’s asymptomatic testing is currently in high demand after the province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw,

asked school staff earlier this week to go get tested

before they return to the classroom.

Alberta Health said anyone whose test was indeterminate will be prioritized for re-testing.

They added that the current average wait time to receive test results is two to four days.

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