COVID-19 False Positives Among the NFL


Pamina Yung, Staff Writer

Up until October, the New Jersey BioReference Laboratory, which has been the sole source of providing the National Football League (NFL) with COVID-19 tests for its players, has given the NFL almost 80 positive COVID-19 tests. The tests and data were sent back to the same lab to be re-examined, and each test came back negative, indicating the previous ones to have been false positives. Out of the five total BioReference labs across the nation working to diagnose COVID-19, the facility located in New Jersey has been the only one producing false positives.

False positives can occur due to specimen-to-specimen cross-contamination or mixing up names with containers. Regardless, no testing method is 100% accurate. Nasal turbinate swabbing, which helps test for COVID-19, is similar to the test for influenza which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, has a sensitivity, or diagnostic accuracy, of around 50-70% when performed correctly.

“Our investigation indicated that these were most likely false positive results, caused by an isolated contamination during test preparation in the New Jersey laboratory,” stated BioReference Laboratories in late August.

“Re-agents, analyzers, and staff were all ruled out as possible causes—and subsequent testing has indicated that the issue has been resolved.”

Teams that were affected by the false positive findings include the Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, Tennessee Titans, and Cleveland Browns.

One recent NFL false positive case was that of a New Orleans Saints player. Fullback Michael Burton tested positive for COVID-19 on the night of Oct. 3. With the game between the Saints and the Lions the following morning, Burton was quickly retested and received negative results. The game remained as planned, but the situation was quite a scare, considering the team had just flown on a plane, which would have made contact tracing a nightmare.

Inaccurate tests have been giving the NFL a headache for months, especially since there’s no real telling when exactly the pandemic will cease. These erroneous results have been a hindrance to games and practices for the concerned teams. Many events are being postponed or canceled, jumbling the schedule of the fourth and fifth weeks of the season. But the NFL will most likely put all its effort into keeping the games running and televised even in these dire circumstances to avoid losing billions of dollars in advertising and TV revenue.

“We are working with our testing partner, BioReference, to investigate these results, while the clubs work to confirm or rule out positive tests,” the NFL said in a statement.

“Clubs are taking immediate precautionary measures as outlined in the [NFL Players Association’s] health and safety protocols to include contact tracing, isolation of individuals and temporarily adjusting the schedule, where appropriate. The other laboratories used for NFL testing have not had similar results” as the laboratory in New Jersey.

With incredible uncertainty ahead regarding the soonest and most effective COVID-19 vaccine, along with the faulty results of the New Jersey BioReference lab, things aren’t looking so bright for future diagnoses.


Photo courtesy of WSJ.COM