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False Positive COVID Tests May Be Frustrating, But Let's All Keep a Broader Perspective

NFL players are allowed to be frustrated that their robust COVID testing program may occasionally keep them off the field, but it's worth remembering how difficult it is for the rest of the country to get test results at all.
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Bills quarterback Josh Allen was “super frustrated” about his status as one of 77 NFL players with a false positive COVID-19 test this week, which forced him to miss Wednesday’s practice.

He said, via the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, that he was startled by the 6 a.m. phone call informing him of the positive test (“it’s nothing you want to hear”) and that he’s concerned that something like this might happen on a Saturday, forcing him to miss an actual game even if he’s careful and not symptomatic.

“It sucks that I was kind of the guinea pig and whatnot, and part of that process, but I’m glad it wasn’t then, I’m glad it was now and we’re able to kind of move past it,” he said.

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It does suck. It sucked for the Bills, who had to rework their practice schedule. It sucked for the Browns, who, according to our Albert Breer, had to cancel a padded practice and switch some of their meetings to virtual gatherings out of concern that an outbreak was real. It sucked for the families of the players who, in a brief moment of panic, had to confront the reality of fighting a disease that has claimed more than 175,000 lives in our country this year alone.

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But then I reached out to a friend of mine preparing to teach middle schoolers in western New Jersey to ask how often they receive a COVID-19 test. They don’t and probably never will, instead getting just a piece of paper that asks a few vague questions about potential symptoms. Hand sanitizing stations are on backorder and probably won’t be there in time for the first day. The school hasn’t spaced out the desks yet. A nurse friend of mine in Tennessee, where cases are more active than they are here in the Northeast, won’t get tested until symptomatic or if directly exposed to someone who has an active case. An OBGYN friend of mine, who works delivering babies during the pandemic, said that if they’re really concerned about the virus they can secure their own testing from home.

The point I’m trying to make: That sucks. Not getting tested at all. Ambling through a crowd at CityMD to get a coronavirus test and not getting results back for two weeks, rendering the sometimes expensive procedure completely meaningless by the time it arrives because, in the span of two weeks, the test-taker could have contracted the disease thousands of times. Facing a classroom full of kids, some unconcerned or ambivalent about the pandemic, without any type of ventilation and no uniform standards for protective equipment. Navigating a chaotic hospital weighed down not only by your own fear, but the overwhelming concern that you could transfer the virus to an at-risk patient, or to your family once you get home. Again, that sucks.

I’m not trying to scold Josh Allen here. My goal is to draw attention to the fact that while NFL players are taking a tremendous risk in playing out the season during a pandemic, they are also incredibly fortunate to have a robust testing protocol that can get them mostly definitive answers or, at the worst, a second opinion in the matter of 24 hours. We shouldn’t begin demonizing a process that is still in its infancy where mistakes will be made. Especially as it’s a process that is also largely unavailable to the rest of the civilized world.

I get it. Unlike doctors or nurses or teachers, football players can’t really perform the main aspect of their job with personal protective equipment—I can’t imagine running a full-speed “go” route with a mask on when I sweat bullets hauling the laundry up the stairs—which makes the testing necessary for guys who plan on sweating and breathing all over one another during full-speed practices and, eventually, games. They opted into a season without a ton of information after a breakneck haggling period with the NFL over the timeline. That all sucks.

But what would really suck is not having any of it at all. And that’s the view from where most of us are sitting.