State: Negative test gap widens; caution advised despite results

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MANCHESTER — The number of negative retest results for presumptive positive COVID-19 antigen tests in Manchester and the Northshire continues to grow — and the number of confirmed positives has remained steady, at just two confirmed positives out of 35 retests.

But residents are being urged to remain vigilant as follow-up testing continues.

The Vermont Department of Health announced Sunday that 35 of the 63 people who had a positive antigen test for the coronavirus at MMC since July 10 have been retested with a PCR test. Of that number, only two have tested positive with the follow-up PCR test.

Furthermore, of more than 400 test results from pop-up PCR testing in both Manchester and Londonderry last week, none have returned as positive, the department said.

While the gap between the results of the antigen and PCR tests continues to grow, MMC co-founder Dr. Janel Kittredge-Sterling has held firm in defending the antigen test, and its use on "asymptomatic" persons. An email seeking additional comment had not been returned by press time Sunday.

As of Saturday, all but seven of the 63 people who initially tested positive at MMC had been contacted, the state Health Department said. "Among those interviewed, most are not symptomatic, and have not been linked to other possible cases," the department said.

The department considers those antigen tests as "presumptive positive" results and has been reaching out to offer health guidance and conduct contact tracing — finding out where those people have been and with whom they've been in close contact.

"Although the Health Department's investigation is not complete, it appears that a majority of the positive antigen results have not been confirmed by subsequent PCR testing," Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said in the release. "We have not yet found connections that would lead us to believe there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in Bennington or Windham counties."

But despite the "good indication" that community spread of the virus is not occurring, Levine warned residents not to let their guard down.

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"It does not mean, however, that people should relax their prevention practices: wearing a mask, keeping a six-foot distance, frequent handwashing, and staying home when sick," Levine said,.

Manchester Town Manager John O'Keefe said Sunday that there's no new additional guidance for residents and business owners from the new results. But he warned that with schools scheduled to return to classes in a month, "Now is not the time to ease off on the throttle. But if people keep doing what they're doing [in exercising caution] we'll be on good shape."

While the lack of positive retests is good news, O'Keefe understands how confused area residents might be about the test and retest results, and what they mean.

"All these different pieces of data make it confusing for us to figure out what does this mean regionally and what does it mean personally," O'Keefe said.

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His counsel? Be careful, but don't worry excessively.

"We have a great department of health and great doctors ... they're figuring this out," he said.

Test results reported by Manchester Medical Center were made public last week by the urgent care clinic via O'Keefe's office when the number of presumptive positive tests climbed to more than 30 over a three-day period. Those results, with more than half in the mountain towns along Route 11 and Route 30 east of Manchester, had not appeared in the state's official count of COVID-19 cases, as the state recognizes the PCR test as its reporting standard.

To date, the virus has infected 3.78 million Americans, killed more than 140,000 people, disrupted education and social institutions and devastated the economy.

In the past several days, Kittredge-Sterling has strongly defended the antigen test's accuracy, as well as the clinic's decision to make the testing results public through O'Keefe's office as a public service.

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Kittredge-Sterling posted several documents to Facebook on Friday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the New England Journal of Medicine, saying the antigen test is indicated for patients who are asymptomatic but have been exposed.

"They may have been asymptomatic, but they had a positive contact," Kittredge-Sterling said Friday. "We weren't just randomly screening people. They were in the car, in the household, at the sleepover. We tested people who were positive or who had a positive contact."

Kittredge-Sterling said she agrees with Levine that there isn't enough data on the test, but she was critical of his calling the negative retest results "false positives."

"If I detect a virus and don't act on it in the middle of a pandemic, that is unacceptable. Putting out a claim of false positives is dangerous," she said.

Friday, during Gov. Phil Scott's twice-weekly COVID-19 briefing, Levine said there are reasons why a person might test positive with an antigen test and then negative with a followup PCR test.

"The likely scenarios where the test might be falsely positive would be at a time when there is a low prevalence of the disease in the population you're testing, which is pretty much what Vermont has been for a long time right now, and when you're testing someone who does not have symptoms," Levine said.

The time between the two tests also provides the chance for the patient to no longer test positive, he added.

Reach Greg Sukiennik at gsukiennik@manchesterjournal.com.


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