CLEVELAND, Ohio – Are you among those who think family and friends can safely come together this Thanksgiving if everyone gets tested for the coronavirus beforehand.
Medical experts say think again.
Everyone securing a negative test is no assurance that you can safely huddle with those outside your family bubble – including that son or daughter who may be planning to return home from college – and feast on turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie.
A single negative test for the coronavirus could easily give a false sense a security, said medical experts contacted by cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer in advance of the holiday for a refresher course on testing. Here is what they had to say:
Someone can get a negative result up to five days after becoming infected, depending on the sensitivity of the test, said Gary Procop, medical director of clinical virology at Cleveland Clinic. So, testing doesn’t reveal a whole lot. And after getting tested, you could get infected at any time leading up to your planned get together.
Symptoms can appear anywhere from two to 14 days after exposure, but the average is about five days, said Dr. Thomas File, an infectious disease physician at Summa Health Medical Group, and people are most contagious two days before and three days after the onset of symptoms.
But even someone who has yet to develop symptoms, or never does, can be shedding virus, Procop said. So, you could be feeling fine as you pass the gravy boat on Thanksgiving and unwittingly give grandma a helping of the deadly virus.
And the tests are not infallible. People can get a false reading at any time, not just early on, whether they are showing symptoms or not, said Dr. Dave Margolius, division director of internal medicine at the MetroHealth System.
Margolius said those false readings can occur with the antigen test, which can provide results in as little as 15 minutes, and with the more reliable PCR test, which takes anywhere from two hours to several days to produce results.
Professional sports teams have relied on frequent testing, yet “breakthrough infections” still have occurred, File said. So, unless you test every couple days, he said, the results may not be adequate enough to rely on.
Even multiple tests should be combined with quarantining to offer any solid assurance of not being sick on Thanksgiving, Procop said. And by quarantining, he doesn’t just mean avoiding bars or restaurants, but activities such as shopping.
If somebody were to get tested on Thursday of this week and then quarantine until the day before Thanksgiving, at which time they tested negative again, “Yeah, you can go ahead and see grandma,” Procop said. “But most people aren’t going to do that.”
And even with negative tests, wearing masks, proper hygiene and social distancing are still necessary.
White House staff were being tested all the time, but many still got sick because they weren’t wearing masks, Procop said.
Margolius said he doesn’t want to use fear to change people’s behavior, but the surge in COVID-19 infection has become very scary. “I never thought we would hit the numbers that we’re hitting right now,” he said.
People have to take the approach that anybody outside their bubble is a carrier, he said, and that means this admonition come Thanksgiving. “You shouldn’t eat with other people outside of your household,” he said.
If you are still not convinced, another reason not to get tested is to preserve testing supplies for those who really need them during the surge. People with symptoms need to be tested and so do those identified through contact tracing as having come into contact with an infected person, Procop said.
“Using those tests just so we can go and have Thanksgiving dinner is really not the best use of resources,” he said.