Australian lab sends out hundreds of false negative COVID test results

As we’ve discussed here previously, Australia’s government has taken the practice of massively overreacting to the spread of COVID with mandates and lockdowns to levels that make the American response look positively casual by comparison. Now that the Omicron variant has become the dominant strain down under, that pattern is continuing. In New South Wales, where Sydney is located, they’ve definitely experienced a sharp rise in new cases as the government sought to administer COVID tests to anyone who couldn’t run away fast enough. They also reported a “sharp rise” in hospitalizations, though the actual number was barely over 400 for the entire state, with just 52 requiring ICU care. (That’s out of a population of 8.2 million.)

This rush to test as many people as possible and quarantine anyone who failed the test has led to some disturbing, though predictable results. One of the largest medical laboratories in Sydney announced that they had sent out hundreds of test results on Christmas that informed relieved residents that they were in the clear for the virus. Unfortunately, all of those tests turned out to be false negatives, so any of them who were interacting with family and friends for the holiday created a fresh surge of contact tracing routines and quarantine orders. (Associated Press)

A major laboratory in Sydney, which is located in New South Wales, said that 400 people who had been informed a day earlier they had tested negative for COVID-19 had in fact tested positive. The lab’s medical director said those people were being contacted and informed of the error.

“An emergency response team is now investigating the cause of this mistake, which is believed to be due to human error. We sincerely apologize,” said SydPath medical director Anthony Dodds.

Doctors and pharmacists in New South Wales have said they are running short of vaccine doses amid a rush for shots spurred by concern over the omicron variant.

At the same time, the state is reportedly running short of vaccine doses amid a huge rush of people seeking either first shots or boosters. Omicron has apparently done more to produce a rush of vaccination compliance than the government mandates ever could. That’s probably unsurprising, given how Omicron is being described in the news globally like the arrival of the Four Horsemen.

If the Australians want to be extraordinarily cautious in terms of the spread of Omicron and their people want to go along with the routine, that’s their business. But this episode may turn out to be important for other nations if a new and more deadly variant shows up down the road. First of all, how does “human error” figure into the performance of medical testing that should be fairly routine by this point?

If it can happen at one lab, that means it could be happening at others, right? How much of this is going on in other countries? False negatives are actually worse than false positives because they tend to send people out into public with confidence when they are actually infectious. But if the rate of false results being delivered is too high then we really have no idea how big or widespread any given outbreak is.

That factor brings us to the basic math problem that Donald Trump attempted to point out in 2020 before being pilloried for it by the media. New South Wales is now testing so many people so quickly that they are literally running out of test kits. (That’s happening all over the world, by the way.) Previously, most of the people seeking testing were experiencing some symptoms that were serious enough to make them worried that they might have contracted the virus. But when you go around testing nearly everyone, you’re going to wind up detecting particularly “mild” cases that people might have written off as a cold or allergies. And Omicron has been characterized as being generally “mild” since day one. Doesn’t it make sense that the recorded number of new cases is going to “surge” when you ramp up testing in this fashion?

In short, we may not really be seeing a huge surge in new cases at all. We’re just recording more of the ones that were already out there but wouldn’t have made it onto the books previously. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t bother keeping records for the sake of an accurate history of the pandemic, but let’s at least be consistent about it. In any event, the Omicron wave is obviously washing over the more populated portions of Australia, and everyone is once again setting their hair on fire. But looking at the numbers thus far, they should come out of this one without taking too much damage.

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