Getting A Negative COVID Test Doesn’t Mean It’s Party Time

by Lindsay Wolf
Originally Published: 

Pandemic fatigue is real, ya’ll. We’re all understandably feeling it. Speaking personally, I can tell you that not being able to take my kids to the family-friendly spots we love, go out on date nights with my husband, or get a legitimate break from the incessant parenting-while-working juggle has taken a major toll on my mental health. So believe me when I say that I 100% get why our country is so fucking tired of this disease. But facts are facts, and if we avoid them, we will certainly continue living with — and dying from — COVID-19.

This past Tuesday, we hit another record-breaking day of 135,428 new coronavirus cases nationwide, with the U.S. officially racking up a horrifying tally of over 240,000 reported fatalities. This pandemic is just getting worse, and so is our national handling of it. Sure, we can easily fault our super-spreader president for being the most embarrassing example of how to handle a global crisis — but at the end of the day, it is also our individual choices during this time that can ultimately impact us as a whole.

So while I can totally empathize with the struggle of wanting to play “chicken” with the novel coronavirus just to be able to feel like a functional human being again, I’ve got to make it abundantly clear that I couldn’t disagree more with the reality of actually doing it. Which is why I need to remind you that just because you may have tested negative one random time, that doesn’t mean you can suddenly stick your party hat on and go wild. Because not testing positive just means that either A) you most likely didn’t have COVID-19 at the time you took the test, or B) COVID-19 wasn’t detectable enough yet for a test to confirm it. You get where I’m going with all of this, right?

The unavoidable truth is that a single negative coronavirus test can be misleading at best. According to the CDC, a result like this just means that you probably weren’t infected during the time your sample was collected. Obviously, this is not a definitive answer. So you could still totally have COVID after you receive your test results. “We know that the incubation period for COVID-19 is up to 14 days,” emergency medicine physician Dr. Leana Wen told CNN on November 3rd. “And before that, you can be testing negative, and have no symptoms. But you could actually be harboring the virus and be able to transmit it to others.”

The other shitty fact is that scientists don’t have an exact timeline yet for when an infected person will start testing positive. “There are situations when a person could test negative, actually be infected, and also be contagious,” senior science reporter Brian Resnick writes for Vox. “It’s also possible — since this virus multiplies itself exponentially in the body very, very quickly — that someone could test negative in the morning (and not be contagious), but by the afternoon test positive (and be very contagious).”

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In fact, a study in the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine investigated false-negative test results of people who were in actuality living with COVID-19. It was determined that the probability of getting a negative test result on the first day of infection was 100%. Since symptoms don’t typically begin presenting themselves in the first five days of infection (and can also remain hidden for up to two weeks), there’s no indisputable way of knowing if you’ve contracted COVID in the early stages of actually having it.

So what can you do if your initial test results come back negative? First of all, listen to the scientists and stick to the basics. Isolate yourself if you’re presenting symptoms, wash your hands, wear a mask, and socially distance until you can test again. Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, disinfect frequently-touched surfaces, and remember that you can still spread coronavirus to others even if you don’t feel sick. The rate of false-negatives in the AIM study dropped to 67% on day four, 38% on day five, and 20% on day eight, which means that it’s best to play it safe by quarantining and waiting a few days before taking another test.

Most importantly, you have got to stop thinking that you’re immortal just because you took one negative COVID test. Because you aren’t. And you are putting the rest of us at risk by assuming that you are.

Okay, now that we’ve gotten all of that out of the way, I give you my full permission to yell “Debbie Downer!” at your screen. Go on, do it. I won’t tell anyone, and I certainly won’t take it personally. If me bumming you out about your one negative COVID test helps you stop pretending like you’re the newest member of the Avengers, then that benefits everyone. I know that this time in our lives is unbearably difficult. But, in the words of New York Times Bestselling author Glennon Doyle, “we can do hard things.”

You are far from alone if you are struggling to endure this pandemic-ridden year. I get it, I really do. I just don’t want anybody else unnecessarily forcing us to live with this awful disease any longer than we have to. That’s a reasonable request to make, don’t ya think?

Information about COVID-19 is rapidly changing, and Scary Mommy is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. With news being updated so frequently, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For this reason, we are encouraging readers to use online resources from local public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization to remain as informed as possible.

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