Spring semester sees rise of invalid COVID-19 tests, new ‘inconclusive’ category

A+sign+of+the+COVID+testing+site+of+Emerson+College+and+Tufts+University.

Photo: Hongyu Liu

A sign of the COVID testing site of Emerson College and Tufts University.

By Alec Klusza, Assistant News Editor

This semester, the college has reported a slight rise in COVID-19 tests coming back “invalid” and has introduced a new “inconclusive” category for tests, exacerbating the logistical inconvenience of retesting and sending more students into isolation.

The percentage of invalid tests, sometimes called “tests non-performed,” (TNP), signals an error in the testing process, such as a misplaced label or a low-quality specimen. Erik Muurisepp, assistant vice president for campus life and the college’s “COVID Lead,” says despite the uptick in invalid tests, the percentage is to be expected and is similar to that of other organizations using the Broad Institute for testing.

“We are roughly at a 3 percent TNP rate, [which] is on par with what is to be expected,” said Erik Muurisepp.

Student samples are tested twice for the virus in a “two assay test.” When a student receives a TNP, they are required to get re-tested as soon as possible. 

However, if both tests of a sample are reported positive, then it is considered a positive test result and the student must immediately enter into isolation. If the sample only results in only one positive, it is labeled inconclusive, and the student must go into temporary isolation until they receive a negative test. Muurisepp said the “inconclusive” result category was introduced for college tests about two weeks ago.

“That is in response to the ongoing tweaking and improving of the testing process over at the Broad Institute,” Muurisepp said. “Inconclusives we treat as potential positives. And that’s at the direction of a medical team at Tufts, and so they then reach out, get that person in for a second test as soon as possible, and then pending that second test result, they would be able to relieve temporary isolation.”

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Tris Arthur, a first-year visual and media arts major, received three invalid test results since returning to campus in January, causing her to go several days without a conclusive negative result. 

“It’s kind of ridiculous how often it’s happening,” Arthur said. “I know that I’ll be able to just go back the next day and get retested, and it won’t be an issue, but there is a small element of stress. It’s a bit concerning when you don’t know—when you don’t have the security of knowing—that you’re negative.”

Arthur received one of her invalid tests the Friday before Presidents’ Day weekend. Because of the holiday, the Tufts testing center was closed until the following Tuesday—meaning she was forced to wait eight days before she could receive a negative result.

“It’s particularly stressful if you get your [invalid] test on a weekend,” she said. “There wasn’t really anything I could do since I couldn’t get tested until Tuesday.”

Harry Robinson, a first-year business and creative enterprises major, was forced to quarantine in his dorm room in the Little Building after getting an invalid test in the fall. This was due to the college’s policy that all students moving into on-campus housing must quarantine in their dorm room upon arrival, before getting the results of their baseline test.

“I still hadn’t gotten a chance to be in Boston yet, I was really excited,” Robinson said. “I had to stay in my single room with no roommate for like three days. I basically was just like, ‘everybody stay away from me, I have to get tested again.’ And it was just really annoying.”