False Positive COVID-19 Tests – – Hooray!

Scarlett O’Hara is not a positive literary model for dealing with difficult situations head on.  The image of an ostrich with its head stuck in the ground is not one that most people would like to have applied to themselves – albeit that image is better that one with a head stuck in a “lower bodily orifice.”  Ignoring a problem never solves a problem; ignoring a problem might see the problem resolve itself – or not.  At the moment, I am afraid that the NFL is behaving like Scarlett O’Hara and looks like an ostrich.

I wrote yesterday about the false positive coronavirus tests that happened over the weekend causing several teams to interrupt or alter their training camp routines.  Well, it turns out that there were 77 false positive tests (44 players and 33 coaches/others) involving 11 teams.  Let me get the good news in here first:

  • After redoing these tests, all 77 “positive” results turned out to be negative.  None of those folks contracted COVID-19.

William Shakespeare would have us believe that All’s Well That Ends Well; the entirety of the coronavirus spread in the US should make us believe that wishing for a benign outcome does not assure a benign outcome.  The NFL today appears to have adopted the Shakespearian stance on the testing issue.  I realize that a public statement on the issue has to be made in the news environment of 2020 – even if at the time of the public statement, the situation is in medias res.  So, here is the meat of the statement made by BioReference Laboratories – the company that does the test analysis:

“On August 22, BioReference Laboratories reported an elevated number of positive COVID-19 PCR test results for NFL players and personnel at multiple clubs.  The NFL immediately took necessary actions to ensure the safety of the players and personnel. Our investigation indicated that these were most likely false positive results, caused by an isolated contamination during test preparation in the New Jersey laboratory. Reagents, analyzers and staff were all ruled out as possible causes and subsequent testing has indicated that the issue has been resolved. All individuals impacted have been confirmed negative and informed.”

That statement was released approximately 48 hours after the announcement of the 77 false positives and in that time the folks at the lab that made those errors were able to “rule out as possible causes” their reagents, analyzers and staff as the cause.  Think about what that means:

  • The materials they use are the correct ones and are in the proper state of purity; the machines they use function flawlessly; the people made no errors.
  • And somehow, there were 77 “anomalies”.

They reach their conveniently positive conclusion after about 48 hours of investigation – assuming they worked round the clock to get there – and by pronouncement, they declare that the “issue has been resolved”.  I hope they are right; the NFL damned well better hope they are right.  Imagine for just a moment that on the Saturday before the Conference Championships next January – – assuming the NFL season gets to that point – – BioReference Laboratories experiences another ”isolated contamination” in their testing.  Sure, I admit that scenario is looking for the worst possible outcome – – but if BioReference Laboratories and the NFL do not know what that “isolated contamination” is or how it intruded itself into the testing process, how can they possibly assert that ”the issue has been resolved”?

[Aside:  Given the speed with which these folks investigate and reach definitive conclusions, I suggest that the NCAA get their names and phone numbers so they can populate their next Blue Ribbon Commission to investigate the next thorny issue that comes up in college athletics.  Normally an NCAA Blue-Ribbon Commission takes 48 months to conclude that rain is wet.]

I understand that it is important to BioReference laboratories to be positive and to project confidence at a time like this.  It is inconceivable that they would ever stand up and say that they screwed up 77 tests and do not have the foggiest inkling as to how that happened.  I get that.  I do not get why the NFL is playing Pollyanna at this moment.  Here is how the NFL’s Chief Medical Officer sees things:

“To me, the most important thing is that we’ve gotten through four weeks thus far without any of our clubs having a major outbreak.  Certainly, it’s far too early to celebrate that.  But I do think we should acknowledge that our clubs have done a terrific job – players, coaches and staff – in following our protocols, and I think our protocols are working.  I think we have shown they are having the results that we want, and the events of this weekend shouldn’t change that view.”

Allow me to point out four things:

  1. The Chief Medical Officer is absolutely correct that the absence of any outbreaks of COVID-19 over the course of the NFL’s restart is the most important thing and that is a positive thing.
  2. HOW-EVAH [/Stephen A. Smith] it is the testing that you are doing that leads you to conclude that there are no outbreaks and “the events of this weekend” have shown that the testing is not always correct.
  3. The NFL – and BioReference Laboratories – were immensely fortunate that the erroneous tests were false positives and not false negatives.  Think about the ramifications of 77 false negative tests and you will see how lucky those folks were.
  4. AND no one knows how the defined cause of this testing anomaly – – the “isolated contamination during test preparation” – – happened.  Without that knowledge, how can one ever know when or if it will happen again?

Finally, since I mentioned William Shakespeare above, let me present this entry from The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm.  It has relevance to Shakespeare, and it seems to parallel the thinking ongoing in the NFL and in BioReference Laboratories:

Shakespeare, William:  Sixteenth and early-seventeenth century playwright widely considered to be the finest dramatist to work in the English language which is weird, since any English-speaking person who has had to read or sit through one of this dude’s plays will tell you that you can’t understand a thing anybody is saying.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………