About two dozen people in Dutchess and Ulster counties received false positive results for COVID-19 tests last week, the result of a batch contamination at a private lab used by hospital group Nuvance Health.
According to county officials, the error affected 18 people in Dutchess County, including 13 people at the Nuvance-run Thompson House nursing home in Rhinebeck, and three in Ulster County.
The lab group that processed the results, Sunrise Medical Laboratories, has had problems with other test batches in the last week. Newsday reports that 74 Long Island residents who were tested between July 9 and 14 received false positive results from Sunrise.
Sunrise Medical Laboratories and its parent company, Sonic Healthcare, have been ramping up COVID-19 testing capacity recently to cope with increased demand, according to a July 2 press release on the company’s website.
Although the patients in Dutchess and Ulster counties have already been informed that their test results were false, the New York State Department of Health is taking the position that the patients should be considered positive until further testing has been conducted.
Janet Steen, a patient at Nuvance’s Health Quest clinics in Ulster County, was tested for COVID-19 at the Boiceville clinic on Friday, July 10. She had been running a fever for a couple of days, and took the test as a precaution.
Steen was shocked the next Monday when her doctor called to tell her she was positive for COVID-19.
“I was stunned and couldn’t figure out where I’d gotten it,” she says. Steen immediately began contacting friends she had attended outdoor gatherings with recently, and preparing to isolate from her family at home.
As the news of Steen’s positive test spread through her social circle, it created widening ripples of fear and disruption. Her 17-year-old daughter burst into tears at the news. Friends were distraught. Travel plans were abruptly canceled.
Four days later, her doctor called again to apologize: Steen’s test result was an error.
In a statement, Nuvance Health said that county officials as well as patients had been informed of the error.
“The false-positive results were part of a batch of a few dozen specimens sent by Nuvance Health to Sunrise/Sonic laboratories,” spokesperson Sarah Colomello wrote. “The specimens involved medical office patients, presurgical hospital patients, and nursing home residents across the 7-hospital network. Patients were notified of the corrected results and the Ulster and Dutchess county governments have updated their COVID-19 dashboards.”
Dutchess County spokesperson Sean McMann says that the false positives were reported in county data on Monday, July 13. On that day, according to New York State data, the county had 38 positive tests, with a positive test rate of 3.3 percent, higher than on surrounding days. Eighteen of those tests were in the Nuvance batch of false positives.
“We adjusted our COVID dashboard on July 16 to take them off,” McMann says.
McMann says that the Dutchess County patients are quarantined as a precaution, and are due to complete their quarantine this week.
Ulster County officials maintain that patients should presume they are positive until they can be retested. Dan Torres, assistant deputy county executive for Ulster County, says that the county reached out to the New York State Department of Health and was told the state was still treating the results as positive.
“[The state Department of Health] concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that there were any false positives in what we were reviewing,” Torres says.
In an emailed statement, the New York State Department of Health confirmed that they were advising local health departments to treat the results as positive.
“The Department was informed that false positive results were issued by the laboratory as a result of a specimen contamination issue,” the statement reads. “The laboratory has been working closely with the Department and has corrected the problem. The Department has advised that patients that were originally reported as positive should be treated as positive pending the outcome of this additional retesting.”
Steen said on Tuesday evening that she has not been ordered by the Ulster County Health Department to isolate since hearing from her doctor about the false positive batch. But the family did get a puzzling letter from county health officials addressed to Steen’s daughter, ordering her to isolate. Steen’s daughter was tested as a precaution because of Steen’s own positive test, but the test came back negative.
“They mistakenly said my daughter had tested positive for COVID and had to quarantine,” Steen says. “She never tested positive for COVID-19.”
The whole experience has been an ordeal, Steen says. She now has less faith in the system, and she is worried that errors like these will make other people leery to be tested.
False positives are a risk with any test. The molecular tests used to detect active COVID-19 infections are much more accurate than the antibody tests used to detect an immune response, but they aren’t perfect—and as the recent Sunrise errors demonstrate all too well, a single mistake in a batch can throw off local data and make an impact on a lot of lives. In a case like this, mixed messages between local healthcare providers, county health officials, and the state Department of Health make it even more difficult for patients to know how to respond.
“I don’t want to be negative, everyone’s trying their best,” Steen says. “I fear this is going to make people more skittish about believing in the testing part of things.”
Lissa Harris is a staff writer for The River. She was the founding editor of the Watershed Post, a site that covered local news in the rural Catskills from 2010 to 2017. Follow her on Twitter @lissaharris.