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Yes, it’s possible. There are several reasons for “false negative” test results — meaning you really do have COVID-19 although the test result says you don’t.

Reasons for a false negative COVID-19 test result include:

  • You were tested too early in the course of illness. The virus hasn’t multiplied in your body to the level that it could be detected by the test.
  • The swab didn’t get a good specimen. You or the healthcare personnel may not have swabbed deeply enough in your nasal cavity to collect a good sample. There could also be less likely handling errors and transportation errors.
  • The test itself was not sensitive or specific enough to detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Sensitivity refers to the ability of the test to detect the smallest amount of virus. Specificity refers to the ability of the test to detect only the COVID-19 virus and not other similar viruses. Many different commercial and hospital laboratories have developed tests for SARS-CoV-2. All must meet standards, but there’s always the possibility of “false negative” and “false positive” tests.

If you think you might have COVID-19 even if your test is negative, it’s best to follow the current CDC recommendations. Stay home for 10 days if you think you are sick (“social distancing”). Stay 6 feet away from others (“physical distancing”) and wear a cloth mask. Contact your healthcare provider if your symptoms worsen. Don’t decide on your own if it’s safe for you to be around others. Instead, contact your healthcare provider when your symptoms improve.

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