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Are all nasal swab tests for COVID-19 equal?

Lab director at Geisinger hospitals believes the lower the test is done in one's nose, the less accurate the results.

Hundreds of Pennsylvanians who are showing no signs of COVID-19 symptoms are taking advantage of drive-thru testing sites are pharmacies like Rite-Aid and CVS. If you aren't familiar with how it works, you schedule an appointment, drive up to the location, and administer a self-swab an inch into your nostrils and hold it there for 15 seconds. 

It is quick, easy, painless, and according to one expert, not necessarily accurate.

Doctor Donna Wolk, division chief of microbial and molecular diagnostics and development at Geisinger Health, believes the lower the sample collected in a nasal passage, the less accurate it becomes.

"If the sample is not collected appropriately, and as you can imagine, it’s difficult to put that swab where it belongs in the nasal cavity, or even in place long enough to absorb the secretions there, there is a chance for false negatives," Dr. Wolk said.

There are three different nasal swab tests the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has approved.

  • A nasopharyngeal specimen collected by a healthcare professional; or
  • A nasal mid-turbinate swab collected by a healthcare professional or by a supervised onsite self-collection (using a flocked tapered swab); or
  • An anterior nares (nasal swab) specimen collected by a healthcare professional or by onsite or home self-collection (using a flocked or spun polyester swab)

The ones being done at drive-thru pharmacy sites is the latter anterior nares collection, which has been approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

FOX43 reached out to the Pennsylvania Department of Health and asked how confident they were in the accuracy of the self-swab tests, and if they were concerned about false-positive or false-negative tests?

Spokesperson Nate Wardle replied, writing, "While originally there were concerns about the accuracy, studies have indicated that these tests are just as accurate, and there are very few concerns over the potential for false positives."

Doctor Wolk argues a negative test for an asymptomatic person could give individuals a false sense of security.

"You could test negative today and tomorrow be positive," she said. "If people want to know, I suppose there’s benefit to that to ease the general fear in the population, but in terms of deciding you don’t have to wear a mask, or deciding your plant or clinic can reopen based on that one point in time is very dangerous."

RELATED: Rite-Aid offering free COVID-19 tests; FOX43's Matt Maisel takes you through the process