Misinterpreted New York Times report leads to false claim that the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. is inflated by up to 90%

10-Sep-2020 1:40 PM EDT, by Newswise

Fact Check By: Newswise, Newswise

Truthfulness: Mostly False


COVID-19 case numbers are inflated due to PCR test sensitivity; “90% of positive COVID-19 tests should be negative”

Claim Publisher and Date: Liz Wheeler, Steve Deace, One America News Network, The Blaze on 2020-09-02


As reported by Health Feedback



Incorrect: Regardless of whether a person tested positive with a high or low Ct value, a positive test indicates that the person is or has been infected with the virus, which qualifies them as a COVID-19 case. The high number of COVID-19 cases reported in the U.S. is due to a large number of infected people, not the PCR test's sensitivity.
Unsupported: The New York Times report did not provide any information regarding the frequency of symptoms among the people whose COVID-19 test results were examined. This makes it impossible to infer any association between the presence of symptoms and Ct values, which some videos and articles attempt to do.



It is important to distinguish between a person who has been infected and a person who is contagious. PCR tests with a high level of sensitivity can produce a positive result even though a person only harbors trace amounts of virus or even dead virus, like in recovering patients. Hence a positive test result without information about viral load is not of practical value in determining if an infected person should self-isolate and whether their contacts should be traced. Although a positive test may not tell us whether the person is contagious, it can confirm whether the person is infected. It is therefore appropriate to count a person with a positive result as a COVID-19 case.


FULL CLAIM: COVID-19 case numbers are inflated due to PCR test sensitivity; “90% of positive COVID-19 tests should be negative”; “In some states, their positive case rate could be exaggerated by 90 percent, according to the New York Times [...] This also means that we forced [...] people across the country, to self-isolate or quarantine who never had to, and that’s just because of false-positives due to bad testing”; “Up to 90% who’ve tested COVID-positive wrongly diagnosed”




The claim that the U.S. has an inflated COVID-19 case count due to the sensitivity of the diagnostic PCR test for the virus that causes COVID-19 has been published in several media outlets including One America News Network, The Blaze, Red State, and Townhall Media. The claim is a misinterpretation of a New York Times news report published on 29 August 2020 yet versions of the claim have received more than a million interactions on social media platforms like Facebook, according to the social media analytics tool CrowdTangle.

What the New York Times report said

In the New York Times article, several experts expressed concerns regarding whether PCR test results for the virus that causes COVID-19 are a practical way of informing an infected person what steps they should take after their diagnosis, specifically whether they should self-isolate. This is also relevant to helping public health authorities determine whether contact tracing for that individual is needed.

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