College declares first November COVID-19 uptick was false alarm

Disclaimer: This is the Miscellany News’ article coverage of six COVID-19 cases which the College deemed false positives this month. Information about a more recent uptick of 13 cases is also included. Our first article about the College’s investigation into positive tests in October can be found here

On Sunday Nov. 15, President Elizabeth Bradley announced in an email to students that six of the recent COVID-19 cases on campus were false positives. These tests were declared false positives by Bioreference Laboratories, the lab that Vassar and Westchester Medical Center use to process coronavirus test results. 

Bradley shared in an email to The Miscellany News that when she had initially heard about the sudden uptick in cases, she was told that they were among unrelated students who had had no known COVID-19 exposure. Suspicious of this, she decided to reach out to Executive Chairman of Bioreference Jon Cohen to investigate the situation.

Cohen thought it would be important to re-run the tests on the original samples, after which they came back negative. Bioreference then recommended to re-test the students. These results also came back negative. In response, Bioreference declared the tests false positives. The six students who were in isolation were then cleared to return back to campus. 

Students who tested positive described a stressful experience. After first learning they had tested positive and had to enter isolation in the Alumni House on Thursday, Nov. 12, some were perplexed at how they could have contracted the virus when following all of the precautions. “I was definitely in shock,” commented Kara Jensen ’22. “When I got the call and they said my results came back positive I was confused and couldn’t believe this was actually happening to me,” she explained. Sarah Goodhill ’22 shared, “I had no idea where I could’ve gotten COVID from. I didn’t know what to do, because Vassar hadn’t given me any directions on how or when to go into isolation.” 

Students began to suspect something was wrong with their test results when they learned that all of their tests had been run in the same batch. Goodhill said that at first she had no reason to believe her positive results were false, but she started to become dubious when learning all six cases had come back in one night. Jensen explained that she thought the results were inaccurate as soon as she received them. “I did think it was a false positive pretty much from the beginning, just because my friends and others in my pod had all tested negative in recent days and my roommate and I are really careful,” she said. No close contacts of the students tested positive. 

This case differs from the wave of suspected false positive cases that occurred back in late September of this year. Although the college questioned the results of the tests, Bioreference deemed those tests accurate positives. Because of this, under guidelines from the State of New York, those students had to continue isolation.

Waves of false positive cases are not an anomaly particular to Vassar. There was a case of 77 false positives in the NFL back in late August of this year. The general public health community recognizes that a certain number of false positives are to be expected.

While President Bradley explained low numbers of false positives are expected, some students confirmed that false positives bring about distrust in the testing process. “I am honestly still struggling to recover from the emotional trauma of everything that I went through and now I have absolutely zero trust in Vassar or in whatever test company and lab they use to test us,” explained Jensen. “I do not think the school handled it well at all and it’s honestly making me reconsider if I even want to come back to campus next semester,” she added. 

Angus Bernet ’22, a close contact of a false positive student who quarantined in the Hampton Inn, said this incident does not erode his trust in Vassar’s testing. “This hasn’t been a constant issue over the course of the semester…However, if there are continuous discrepancies in testing, then we can start questioning their validity,” he said. 

The college is dedicated to remaining as watchful as it can in order to quickly and effectively detect false positives. In an emailed statement, President Bradley wrote: “We understand the disruption that a positive test result causes in the lives of those who are tested, as well as everyone with whom they came in contact. It is for this reason that we will remain vigilant and will continue to question results that seem suspicious.”

On Friday, Nov. 20th, President Bradley sent an email to students explaining that 13 students tested positive for COVID-19. They and their close contacts have been quarantined. She noted that because these cases are inconsistent with Vassar’s testing results thus far, these cases will also be investigated.

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