These Researchers Tested Positive. But the Virus Wasn’t the Cause.


Some at Roger Williams, however, were left angry and confused. A few faculty members in the marine sciences building were embittered by the event, which they said had disrupted classes, hampered productivity and eroded emotional well-being, according to an individual who worked in the building, who requested anonymity to avoid repercussions from the university. Others worried that faculty members and students would see the event as an excuse to forgo testing and gather in close quarters, the individual said.

Brian Williams, the university’s chief of staff, acknowledged that the events had seeded some tension. He could not provide further details, he said, because the university was still reviewing the matter.

Although labs that specialize in diagnostics have long had protocols in place to ward off such events, “we’ve never had a situation where so many labs work on a pathogen” amid a pandemic and so much asymptomatic testing, said Dr. Butler-Wu, the clinical microbiologist. As a result, there are few contingency plans in place to deal with such unusual testing errors.


One person at Roger Williams, who was among the 20 that tested positive, “was initially told I would not be retested,” said the person, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their status at the university. That decision was quickly reversed, and the person tested negative, ending a “stressful emotional roller-coaster.” But only a subset of the 20 people who tested positive were given the opportunity to take a second test with the state department of health, raising ethical concerns, the person said.


Events at Brown also caused “consternation among the staff and the faculty,” said Edward Hawrot, the university’s senior associate dean for the program in biology. A few people who tested positive and suspected that the cause was contamination “were sort of pleading to be retested,” and were able to do so, he said. But many institutions do not have the resources to test liberally, making it difficult to issue follow-up diagnostics.

Guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommend against retesting people within 90 days of a positive result. There are no explicit exceptions for potential contamination. Many individuals whose tests were likely contaminated, across several institutions, stopped getting tested for weeks or months because their positive results had been treated as legitimate, despite the possibility they were still vulnerable to the virus.

One faculty member at Roger Williams, who was among the 20 who tested positive in mid-October, was able to restart regular screening. But when he recently tested positive again, health officials told him he did not need to isolate, according to an email sent to several people in the building.

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