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Negative COVID-19 test results are false sense of security, experts say

Mecklenburg County health officials are seeing a 20% increase in COVID-19 testing ahead of the holidays but are urging people to not gather.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With Thanksgiving coming up, people are still looking to get tested for coronavirus before gathering with friends and family. However, those hoping to get results before turkey day have likely run out of time. 

“Unfortunately, as we increase testing, we have a tendency to see an increase in the amount of time it takes to get the test results back,” Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris said. 

Mecklenburg County Health Department opened up a second location on Tuesday to meet the testing demand, but still, Harris said the sites are averaging about 500 tests a day.

RELATED: Need a COVID-19 test before Thanksgiving? Here's where to go in Charlotte

Health officials said in the days ahead of the holiday, there has been a 20% increase in testing in the county. 

This spike in testing is a good and bad thing.

“If they're coming in for testing because they're getting ready to go on a plane and go somewhere, that's not such a good thing," Harris said. "If they're coming in because they're concerned about their status or they have potentially been exposed, then yes, we want them tested."

RELATED: Keep the mask: A vaccine won't end the US COVID-19 crisis right away

More importantly, health officials are urging people to have small gatherings only with the people in their households and say a negative test may give someone a false sense of security.

“Testing is one piece of info, but certainly, a negative test at a point in time doesn't mean that tomorrow, or the next day or the day after that you couldn't be positive,” medical director of infection prevention for Atrium Health Dr. Katie Passaretti said.

Coronavirus tests are not perfect, and the results are only a snapshot of that exact moment. Anyone traveling could be exposed after testing or the results could be inaccurate because different types of tests have different sensitivities.

RELATED: Ways for families to have a safe holiday during COVID-19

PCR tests, like the ones they're using at the health department, are the most reliable, but the results take longer. At this point, people may turn to rapid tests to get results before Thursday.

“People who are using it with no symptoms prior to travel, that kind of chips away at the performance at that test and would be more prone to give a false negative in that situation,” Dr. Passaretti said.

While getting tested comes with good intentions, it will not guarantee safety at gatherings.

“The best defense is quarantining for 14 days before visiting family. That’s really the only way you'll know you're not bringing the disease to them,” Novant's vice president of clinical services Nikki Nissen said.

With numbers already rising in the county, across the state and country, there's concern the holiday will be the pivotal point where the pandemic gets out of control.

“It’s just the one time in your life that we're asking you to think about this holiday differently so that you can be safe and others around you can be safe,” Harris reminded people. “That is my concern, that we're just going to see numbers continue to climb and as they continue to climb, the potential for people being exposed goes up as well, it just compounds itself."

For people who are traveling anyway, Harris suggests getting tested five to seven days after returning.