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TFP #263 – Finding COVID – How Good is the Test to Detect it?

Clinical Question: What is the chance of obtaining an incorrect result with the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19?

Bottom Line: If the PCR COVID-19 test is positive you have COVID-19 (specificity ~100%). Small Canadian studies suggest the test will detect COVID-19 ~80-90% of the time (sensitivity), although estimates range from ~50%-90%. Collection technique, anatomical sample and timing of collection influence these numbers. The chance of a false negative depends on sensitivity and the pre-test probability the person has COVID-19. Example: someone with abnormal chest x-rays and close COVID-19 positive contacts has a higher risk of false negatives than someone who is asymptomatic.         

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