What the White House Outbreak Has Taught Us About Rapid COVID Tests

Richard Evans
·2 mins read

The revelation that President Donald Trump contracted COVID has dominated the news cycle, along with the subsequent diagnoses of several prominent Republican officials in Trump's inner circle, including First Lady Melania Trump, former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, top aide Hope Hicks, and Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien. Several of these cases seem to have stemmed from the Sept. 26 White House Rose Garden event commemorating the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, and they have called into question the federal government's protocol for coronavirus prevention—most notably, the use of rapid COVID tests.

As The Wall Street Journal reports, the White House has relied on rapid COVID tests among employees and visitors in order to mitigate the spread of the virus in their ranks. Significantly, officials have often eschewed masks and other social distancing measures, assuming that negative test results were reason enough to ignore other COVID protection protocols.

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But false negatives are a possibility with any coronavirus test, and rapid COVID tests are notably less accurate. The Abbott Now ID test, which the White House used in advance of the Sept. 26 event, is thought to have a 91 percent sensitivity, suggesting that up to 9 percent of negative results could be false negatives, The Wall Street Journal reports.

"What seems to have been fundamentally misunderstood in all this was that they were using it almost like you would implement a metal detector," Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health, told the newspaper. "A metal detector that misses 10 percent of weapons—you'd never, ever say that's our only layer of protection for the president."

rapid covid tests
rapid covid tests

Rapid COVID tests can be an effective tool in diagnosing active coronavirus infections, but according to The New York Times, the White House was not using the Abbott Now ID test correctly. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency use authorization for the test to be used by health care providers "within the first seven days of symptoms." In fact, in patients who are infected but not yet experiencing any COVID symptoms, the test can miss up to one in three positive cases.

One of the key lessons from the White House infections is not that rapid COVID tests are useless, but that rapid tests alone aren't sufficient protection against coronavirus transmission. The Rose Garden event "is a good example of why that approach is not successful," Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University, told The Wall Street Journal. Even those who have tested negative should wear masks and maintain social distance as much as possible. And for more on the president's current condition, These Are All the COVID Treatments Trump Has Tried.