MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – When Jason Saxon’s sister, brother-in-law and nephew all got sick with COVID-19, he figured he should get a coronavirus test as a precaution.
“Now, I wish I hadn’t,” said the Tilliman’s Corner man on Tuesday as he awaited the results of his ninth nasal swab test.
Conflicting test results have had Saxon in limbo since July 15 – out of work, burning through savings and still not knowing for certain whether he contracted the virus or not. In all, he registered five positives and three negatives, as well as a separate blood test that detected no antibodies for the disease.
Saxon said late Tuesday afternoon that he finally got the results of his most recent nasal swab test – his ninth. That second consecutive negative will allow him to return to his job as an equipment operator at the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System.
Saxon said he took his first test at the MAWSS wellness center but went to an urgent care facility for another test when he learned he would have to wait seven days for the first test results. He said he was alarmed when that urgent care test came back positive.
“It kind of scared me, because I’m high blood pressure,” he told FOX10 News. “I’m at high risk. I have asthma. I’m on insulin three times a day.”
Saxon’s original test came back, and it showed a negative result. But MAWSS requires two negative results before allowing infected workers to come back. And Saxon took seven more:
- On July 27 at an urgent care center on Cottage Hill Road. The nasal swab test registered positive, but a blood test failed to find antibodies for the disease.
- Only July 28 at the Mobile County Health Department. A rapid-result test showed he had the disease, but a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test came back negative.
- On Aug. 3 at the University of South Alabama Health temporary testing site at the Mobile Civic Center. That test was positive.
- On Aug. 6 at the Health Department, which registered a positive result.
- On Aug. 6 at the Civic Center. That one was negative.
“I mean, it’s just flip-flopping,” he said. “And I just want to know how accurate this test is, if I even really have it or not. I’m trying to go back to work and without two negatives, I can’t.”
Although Saxon’s experience is an extreme case, he is hardly alone. Concerns over accuracy have dogged testing all around the world.
A study last month concluded that almost half of nucleic acid coronavirus tests distributed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave inaccurate results.
Two studies out of China also found errors – false-negatives as high as 40 percent in one study and ranging from 2 percent to 29 percent in the other.
The Mobile County Health Department acknowledged that testing is not perfect and can yield inaccurate results for a variety of reasons.
“There are 136 testing platforms that have been approved under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for SARS-COV-2 diagnostic tests,” the agency said in a response to questions from FOX10 News. “The approved tests may be found at the FDA’s website under the EUA section. Each of these tests have their own percentages for sensitivity and specificity.”
The agency also indicated that how the test sample is collected and how much of the virus someone has also can impact accuracy.
The Alabama Department of Public Health, USA Health and one of the labs that processed some of Saxon’s tests did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Brian Ward, who owns Mobile-based Coast Diagnostics Laboratory, told FOX10 News that the error rate associated with the PCR nasal swab test is low.
“You know, the PCR is really 1 or 2 percent,” he said. “There's a retest you need to do that once a while where the swab collection just really wasn’t that great. But the PCR is really, really accurate. It's the most accurate test we have.”
The Mobile County Health Department urged people who test positive not to re-test for at least 90 days because on the strain on testing capacity and supplies. It is better, the agency added, to follow CDC guidelines – quarantining for 10 days from symptom onset or 10 days from the test date, or 14 days after exposure to an infected person.
Monica Allen, a spokeswoman for MAWSS, told FOX10 News in a statement: “We are complying with CDC guidelines to do what is safe for every employee at MAWSS. We have chosen to be more strict than the CDC recommendations.”
Saxon had no choice but to continue testing because of his employer’s policy. That meant agonizing limbo that lasted almost a month. He said the ordeal cost him a pair of $40 copays for testing at the urgent care clinics and lost income. He said he used up his paid time off, leaning on a supplemental insurance policy and drew on his savings.
Saxon added that his experience has left his human resources department and test center employees, alike, scratching their heads.
“They can’t believe it,” he sadi. “They all just like, ‘No way.’ And I’ve been to the Civic Center so many times they know exactly who I am when I pull up. They’s like, ‘Well, here you go again.’”