Alabama health officials discuss COVID-19 testing as Omicron variant spreads

Coronavirus

(WHNT) — As cases of the Omicron variant make their way to North Alabama, how do you know if a negative COVID-19 test really means you’re in the clear?

With Omicron’s milder symptoms, the flu and the common cold in circulation, doctors say it can be confusing for someone who is feeling under the weather. News 19 reached out to health experts about just how accurate testing is.

It’s much easier than at the start of the pandemic to just get tested, but some Omicron cases aren’t being caught in the first test.

It’s called a false negative. Dr. Wes Stubblefield with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) explained what scientists are discovering.

As the virus mutates over time, the performance and reliability of many COVID tests are also being impacted.

“There’s several things to remember,” said Stubblefield. “The variant itself like we talked about, the disease is really unknown, although it may be closer to just sort of a common cold where people may have more of the cough congestion, runny nose-type symptoms.”

“So one important thing to remember is it’s very difficult to differentiate COVID from other respiratory viruses, like the flu or even the common cold, as in potentially with this variant because it is you know, ‘milder’,” Stubblefield continued.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has released guidance on tests that may fail to detect the Omicron variant. Stubblefield says most are unaffected.

“There had been some PCR-based tests that had been affected by the mutation because of the way the virus changed where they were targeting in the system, and that’s being tracked by the FDA, because that the manufacturers of these tests are required to go through further testing if the FDA thinks their test may not work,” Stubblefield told News 19.

So what happens if you’re feeling under the weather? Do you get tested and quarantine? Health professionals are saying making the decision based on symptoms might be tricky.

“Early speculation, early reports [say] that the loss of taste or smell, which was very particular to the COVID virus, and really not the same with other viruses may be less than likely to happen with this variant, maybe 50% less likely to happen,” Stubblefield stated. “So again, even more confusing when you’re trying to differentiate the COVID infection from just other occasions joining in that direction.”

Stubblefield says the mildness of symptoms for those who are vaccinated or get a negative test even if symptoms persist could give a false sense of confidence.

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