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Rapid COVID-19 tests becoming popular, but are they as accurate?

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — The White House released Friday that a PCR molecular test was administered to President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, which detected COVID-19.

A PCR molecular test is widely considered the most accurate COVID-19 type of test.

Tampa Bay doctors say when it comes to testing for the coronavirus, some tests are more accurate than others.

Most county-run test sites use molecular PCR tests. That’s the type that gets sent off to a lab and can take a few days to process. Yet, rapid, antigen tests have become very popular. The question is: Are they as accurate?

USF health experts tell ABC Action News the rapid, antigen tests and molecular, PCR tests both have advantages.

With a rapid test, you can get results in as little as 15 minutes. That’s great for college campuses, job sites, schools and doctor’s offices needing to treat someone immediately.

Doctors say with either test, a positive result shows you’re highly likely to be infected.

The problem with rapid, antigen tests is that false negatives are possible. That’s why most doctors recommend if you do test negative with a rapid test, that you get a second PCR test, usually the one that uses a deep nasal swab.

Terri Ashmeade, USF Health’s Chief Quality Officer stresses that very few people are immune to COVID-19, including the man holding the most powerful job in America.

“Even those of us who feel like we’re being very very careful there is always the potential we’ve been exposed,” she explained.

That’s why Dr. Ashmeade stresses the importance of getting a COVID-19 test within a key window: between four and five days after you’re exposed to someone with the virus. You should also get tested if you have any COVID-19 symptoms.

Just this week, Governor Ron DeSantis announced Florida is getting more than six million rapid tests for nursing homes and long-term care facilities and Tampa International Airport started offering rapid tests to all passengers.

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Thomas Unnasch, a distinguished USF College of Public Health Professor is glad to see rapid tests being put to good use.

“It’s very useful that you get an answer back very quickly within 15 minutes or so,” he said. “But if you have a negative test there’s still probably a 1 in 5 or 1 in 10 chance that you really were positive and the test just missed it.”

Doctors say the rapid, antigen tests and molecular, PCR tests both have advantages. The rapid tests are great for last-minute travel or those needing to return to work or school, but if you have time to wait for results, they say the PCR, molecular test is your best bet.

“If we have the time to wait for the result, I think that PCR test is the way to go. That being said, it’s not always available or the answer we need right then,” Ashmead added.

Unnasch says as more outdoor events return to Tampa Bay, including fans now having the opportunity to return to Bucs games at Raymond James Stadium in person, he hopes everyone will remember to keep our guards up.

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“Wear the masks, try to stay away from others as much as you can and I think you’ll minimize the chance that you’re going to have a problem,” he added.

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