Story by Darby McCarthy / Contributing Writer
Photo via Pexels
The COVID pandemic has produced an era of security in testing, but tests aren’t foolproof. They can tell you the opposite of what is true.
Consequently, a person with symptoms who is told they’re negative risks infecting family and friends because they didn’t consider their result could be false.
However, what about the opposite situation?
Consider the person whose test says they’re infected, but it’s a false positive – something that health officials say likely occurs in no more than five percent of cases (approximately 1 in 20), according to an August report from Harvard Medical School.
I had never thought about this. If I had, I might have thought that a false positive would’ve seemed less harmful.
If someone without coronavirus is told they have it, they’ll present as an asymptomatic carrier and isolate themselves for a few weeks. Life will go on.
What I didn’t consider – until I experienced it – was the psychological fallout.
Just a few weeks before my birthday in July, I had some health issues. I experienced a loss of taste and smell (not unusual during ragweed season). I experienced fatigue (but in a pollen-heavy heat wave, random exhaustion was explainable).
Yet, out of a sense of concern, I endured the dreaded viral swab up the nose to determine whether my issues were symptoms of the coronavirus and not allergies. My boyfriend took the same test at the same time.
No results had come back by my birthday’s arrival, but I’d been feeling better and was confident I’d hear good news. I visited my family for cake and presents, then I hosted a weekend party at my house with an irresponsible number of attendants.
The following Monday I received a phone call that made my gut turn.
“Your test result is positive.”
Positive. What a strange evolution that word has undergone. Once, it meant beneficial or good; now it meant terror. I had placed my parents, my siblings and my closest friends in danger.
I faced two options: own up or keep mum. If I informed everyone they’d know I’d put them at risk without warning. Perhaps none of them would contract the illness, but if they did they wouldn’t be able to trace it back to me if I said nothing.
I confessed knowing that it would cause me scandal, ridicule and shame.
Phone calls, texts… I sent out messages of warning and apology. In return, I received exclamations of fear and hatred. I was told that I’d behaved like an irresponsible brat. I was told that it would be my fault if they or any of their loved ones died.
Of everyone, none were so angry as my family members – my sister told me never to speak to her again. I was emotionally wrecked. I understood that my choices had been reckless and wrong, and there could be no taking it all back.
I cried a lot, having learned that some mistakes can’t be undone.
A few days later, my boyfriend’s test came back negative. I was relieved but confused. Our results were different? We lived together, slept together, shared every meal and drank after one another.
I rushed out to take another COVID test – this time a far less invasive (though still uncomfortable) throat swab. I called to check on the results every day for weeks. I stayed in contact with my workplace which had to be temporarily shut down for employee testing all because of me.
Person after person began to update me on their individual results: all negatives.
Finally, I received the same news.
I thought family and friends would share my elation, but some expressed anger that I’d gotten retested. The cause for outrage and fear was owed to a broken trust, and not just my results.
I am thankful that none in my circle contracted COVID, but my empathy for those with truly positive test results has greatly expanded. They did not contract the virus maliciously. They did not spread it as a form of personal attack. They’re scared too.
No one is perfect. We must all be personally responsible, accountable and safe. A false positive meant I got a second chance at safety, but not everyone will be as fortunate as I was.
Wear your masks.
Avoid large gatherings.
Wash your hands.
If you’re feeling bad get tested and quarantine yourself until you know the results, and even then listen to your body. If you still feel sick, separate yourself.
I promise that you don’t want to share my experience. I didn’t have COVID, but the loss of trust from those I love most was just as unsettling.
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