Manchester COVID ‘outbreak’ included many false positives
“I wouldn’t turn the siren off yet. I don’t think it’s the time to let our guard down.”
— Manchester Town Manager John O’Keefe
Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine cast doubt on the 59 reported COVID cases in Manchester, saying on Friday that the test results may have been false positives.
The Department of Health confirmed just two of the cases in follow-up testing. Fifteen of the 59 have tested negative in subsequent tests, Levine said.
“Although our investigation is not complete, it appears that many of the positive antigen results reported by Manchester Medical Center may have been false positives,” Dr. Levine said in a press release later that day.
Levine reported that an additional 405 tests run by local hospitals and the health department all came back negative.
“This is a good indication that these cases are not spreading within the community,” Levine said at the governor’s press conference. The state doesn’t have a full picture of the spread of the virus yet, he said, but “clearly the data is trending in the direction” of fewer positive tests.
The announcement comes as health officials and doctors in Manchester continue to publicly dispute the value of different COVID-19 tests and how the results are reported. A local doctor’s office, Manchester Medical Center, got the 59 positive results with antigen tests, which provide rapid results that are less accurate than the diagnostic PCR tests favored by the health department.
Antigen tests are intended for people who have COVID-19 symptoms, said Levine; they have not been studied for healthy individuals. The Department of Health only publicizes results from the PCR tests, which can take days to get results.
Doctors at Manchester Medical Center have been using antigen tests since late May, about two weeks after they were approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration, said Dr. Janel Kittredge, an emergency medicine physician and medical director of the facility.
The facility’s first positive test came on the heels of the July 4th weekend, when second homeowners and visitors crowded into Manchester.
“Swimming holes are full, ponds are full, people are playing baseball, there’s lacrosse,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘this is going to be an interesting time.’”
On July 10, a 12-year-old with a fever, abdominal cramping and diarrhea tested positive for COVID. Some of the child’s family members also tested positive with antigen tests, as did other people with COVID-like symptoms who had traveled out of state.
She posted on Facebook on Sunday, July 12, about the results — a channel she wouldn’t typically use to disperse information. “This is not like I can sit on this information that I have for a week and wait for it to go through the [proper] channels, because in that week period of time, those infected people will spread it to 100 people who will then spread to another 100 people who will then fly back to Florida or Chicago,” she said. “We don’t have that kind of time.”
Over the subsequent days, contacts of those people came in and tested positive. That anecdotal evidence suggests that those individuals did indeed have COVID, Kittredge said.
She said the clinic had run at least seven follow-up PCR tests, some of them at the same time as the antigen tests. Five of that total tested positive.
There are many reasons someone could have tested negative in follow-up PCR tests, including the person’s symptoms, when they were tested and how the test was run, she said.
Kittredge criticized Levine for creating a false sense of security that may ultimately lead to increased spread of the virus.
“Please don’t make the blanket statements that these are false positives and that people can go about their business, because that’s dangerous,” she said in an interview later Friday. “I’m concerned that those folks don’t go out and with this false sense of ‘OK, my second test was negative, I can go out.’”
Levine said he’s not downplaying the information. They’re going to continue to run more PCR tests in the coming days, he said. The department is also treating positive antigen tests as confirmed positives, doing contract tracing and urging those affected to stay home.
So far, residents are doing their part to continue with social distancing and prevent the spread of the virus, said Manchester Town Manager John O’Keefe. The town has imposed a mask mandate, and last week O’Keefe put up eight signs around town encouraging people to wear their masks. He’s received overwhelming support from residents and on social media.
“A real telltale sign of what’s going on around here,” he said of the positive feedback.
In spite of the latest state data, O’Keefe urged the public not to let up on taking precautions. “I wouldn’t turn the siren off yet,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the time to let our guard down.”
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