A robust COVID-19 testing plan is at the forefront of university efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 across the UW-Madison campus, but some students are reporting the university’s saliva-based testing has given them false positive test results, forcing themselves and acquaintances into isolation.
The university says that the chance of a false positive COVID-19 test result is extremely low, as both the saliva-based and nasal swab testing options utilized on campus are polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and considered the “gold-standard” of coronavirus tests.
Meredith McGlone, the director of news and media relations at UW-Madison, maintains this sentiment.
“It’s important to understand that any diagnostic test performed in populations with a low disease prevalence will yield some false-positive results,” said McGlone, highlighting that PCR tests used by the university are the most specific tests available to detect infection, thus minimizing the number of false positive tests to the greatest possible extent.
McGlone also said the university is not seeing any difference in the frequency of false positives between saliva and nasal swab tests, both of which are PCR tests.
“We are currently reviewing all of the campus test data with an eye toward ensuring public health while minimizing the impact of false-positive results,” said McGlone.
Still, some students say they have received false positive results from the saliva-based test.
Max Peckenschneider, a first-year student-athlete who tests frequently, recently received a positive test result from an on-campus, saliva-based test. He had COVID-19 early last semester and was surprised to receive another positive result, prompting him to seek another test.
“I took two additional tests to double-check and they both came back negative,” said Peckenschneider. One of these tests was a university test — taken prior to being notified that his test from the previous day had come back positive — and the other through CVS Pharmacy.
Will — a junior who asked to not disclose his full name — tested positive last Friday.
“I was very surprised that I tested positive because everyone around me had been testing negative for weeks and both of my two in-person classes have pretty good social distancing/mask-wearing precautions,” said Will.
Because UHS does not allow students to complete campus tests after receiving a positive result, Will tested at the Alliant Energy Center the following Saturday, ultimately receiving a negative result this Monday. He tested again on Tuesday and received another negative result Wednesday.
“The most concerning thing for me is that there could be a significant number of students who got a false-positive and now are not only exempt from testing, but confident that they can’t get the virus,” Will said, underscoring his frustration with the restrictions placed on himself as well as those he has interacted with who were asked to quarantine by university contact tracers.
The university maintains that they will not accept negative test results from off-campus testing sites, and as a result, Will and his roommates are left with restricted access to campus spaces in accordance with the Safer Badgers app and Badger Badge system.
Will plans on contacting UHS to see if there is anything that can be done to lift the restrictions on his roommates and friends but is weary this will happen.
UW-Madison senior Hayden Rasmussen believes he recently received a false positive test result as well.
“When I first found out I tested positive, I was very shocked,” said Rasmussen. “Like many others, I have been very responsible in the age of Corona.”
Just three days before his positive test result, Rasmussen tested negative. After receiving the positive test result days later, he followed guidelines — isolating himself and cooperating with contact tracers.
Seven days into Rasmussen’s isolation and after his girlfriend and sister tested negative several times, he went to get another test which came back negative.
Rasmussen contacted the university’s COVID-19 hotline and was told to complete the remainder of his isolation period. He said an individual at the COVID-19 hotline told him he would be added to a “list” of other students who believed they had false positives but that he should not “expect to hear back from anyone.” UHS also instructed him to continue isolating himself.
“The whole quarantine was a waste of time, and the people I had name-dropped to the contact tracer were all affected by me, losing access to buildings and such,” said Rasmussen, highlighting his sister’s experience quarantining in the Lowell Center, its effect on her mental health and the university’s refusal to reconsider her quarantine as a result of Rasmussen’s two negative test results.
“This proved to me that the university doesn't actually care about whether the tests are right or wrong, they are just trying to save themselves from lawsuits,” stressed Rasmussen.
As a result of his positive saliva-based test result, Rasmussen is exempt from testing until May, in accordance with university policy.
“So now I don’t have to get tested to enter buildings, and I could easily have the virus, never get tested and the University couldn’t stop me from entering my classes and spreading it to countless others around me,” continued Rasmussen. “The university needs to take these allegations [of false-positive test results] seriously, because myself and many others in similar situations are now running free, with no need to get tested.”
According to Rasmussen, the university has been lackluster in dealing with experiences like his own — citing frustrating phone calls during which staff provided little information or clarity concerning his situation throughout his isolation period.
“I feel like those who have been affected deserve some sort of acknowledgment,” said Rasmussen. “The tests are not perfect.”
Concerns about the mental health and safety of students on campus led Rasmussen to show frustration with the management of false positive tests. Yet, he fully supports frequent testing protocols.
“I still believe testing is essential to keeping in-person courses and that everyone should still get tested,” continued Rasmussen. “But please make a better system.”