Because there was a small cluster of known cases of the virus in Boston's South End, testing was commenced at what would seem like a hotbed of potential infection: a homeless shelter. But much to the shock of local health authorities, nobody at the shelter was actually sick, despite some of them testing positive.
"It was like a double knockout punch," stated Dr. Jim O'Connell, president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, which provides medical care to Boston's homeless shelters. "The number of positives was shocking, but the fact that 100 percent of the positives had no symptoms was equally shocking."
False positives have plagued current testing efforts, causing many scientists and health officials to believe an artificially high percentage of people are infected with the coronavirus. Many antibody tests, for example, produce far higher numbers of false positives than "true" positives.
"All the screening we were doing before this was based on whether you had a fever above 100.4 and whether you had symptoms," O'Connell added. Seeming perplexed, he added, "How much of the COVID virus is being passed by people who don't even know they have it?"
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The 146 people who tested positive at this particular homeless shelter were immediately moved to two different temporary isolation facilities, both located in Boston. In the end, only one of the infected individuals ended up needing hospital care, while the rest continue to show no symptoms.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that it is "actively looking into" these results because they could be a game-changer for how virus testing is to proceed at a societal level.
"If we did universal testing among the general population, would these numbers be similar?" asks Lyndia Downie, president and executive director of the Pine Street Inn. "I think there are so many asymptomatic people right now. We just don't know. We don't have enough data on universal testing to understand how many asymptomatic people are contagious."
In the coming days, authorities say they will be conducting additional tests at other Boston homeless shelters which could shed more light on how this thing is potentially spreading unnoticed because many of the people who catch it never end up showing symptoms.
"It tells you, you don't know who's at risk," adds Marty Martinez, Boston's chief of Health and Human Services. "You don't know what you need to do to contain the virus if you don't actually have the details or facts."
Martinez says that the goal of his department is to test everybody at all Boston homeless shelters in the coming days in order to gain "a good understanding of who has it and who doesn't."
The problem with this plan, of course, is that the issue with high numbers of false positives still hasn't been resolved.
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Sources for this article include: