August 19, 2023

Rapid Testing and Complacency During the COVID-19 Pandemic

During the pandemic, people have been encouraged to take rapid point-of-care (PoC) or home tests to determine if they have COVID-19. These tests, also known as antigen tests, can produce results in minutes if they are analyzed onsite or within a few days if the test is sent to a lab. They rely on detection of certain proteins in the virus. The virus has mutated, but these tests have been shown to detect the latest omicron variant just as well as earlier versions.

The tests are less accurate when people are not at the peak of their infection, though, and can produce false negatives as high as 20%. As a result, CDC advises that those who have tested negative for the omicron virus but are experiencing symptoms should get a confirmation PCR test.

But these tests can also lead to complacency, with people not following recommended behaviors if they receive a negative test result. To examine the impact of test outcomes on behavior, researchers at UMass Amherst used an experimental study to present participants with various scenarios in which they would be given a positive, negative or invalid test result. They then asked whether they would follow the recommended behavior.

The results showed that a positive result made people more likely to wear a mask and practice physical distancing, but a negative result did not. Thus, the findings suggest that providing people with clear, concise information on the accuracy of their test results can increase their willingness to test and follow CDC advice on protecting themselves.


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