Negative for ‘Coronavirus,’ positive for COVID-19: Stanford Medicine reformats reports after confusion

Patients interpreted seasonal coronavirus negative as COVID-19 negative

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The call came two days after the test results from Stanford Hospital said Olivia Fu ’22 was negative for “Coronavirus.” 

As she stood in line with her father to buy pupusas, a nurse from Vaden Health Center called her to break the news: The negative result Fu received was for seasonal coronavirus. She had tested positive for COVID-19.

“The whole point of me getting tested was so I would know whether or not I could interact with my dad … and I’d already had lunch with my dad,” Fu told The Daily.  

Across the country, people who suspect that they have COVID-19 are struggling to get tested. Researchers at Stanford Medicine have developed their own FDA-approved test, accessible at Stanford Hospital, Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and hospitals in the Bay Area and beyond

But after being tested through Stanford Medicine for COVID-19, patients first receive lab reports of their routine respiratory virus panel testing through their MyHealth patient portal. Until Sunday, that report included a test result for seasonal coronavirus, listed as “Coronavirus,” which causes the common cold. This test result, when negative, led some patients to believe they had tested negative for COVID-19, and to act accordingly. 

“I know [the hospital is] super swamped and overwhelmed beyond comprehension, but it’s unfortunate from the fact that I would not have stayed the night at a hotel or driven someone who hasn’t tested positive yet back home had I known that I was positive,” Fu said. 

The seasonal coronavirus test results were removed from the MyHealth lab reports on Sunday “to ensure they would be understood clearly,” wrote Stanford Medicine spokesperson Julie Greicius in an email to The Daily. The routine respiratory virus panel test takes around two hours. The COVID-19 test “takes approximately 24 hours or longer due to high test volumes,” leading to a later release of those results. 

“Since our clinical response to COVID-19 began in late January, Stanford Medicine has continued to refine both the testing and results-reporting process for the virus,” Greicius wrote.

Two students interviewed by The Daily received their routine respiratory virus panel testing before the change, and each interpreted the negative result as a negative for COVID-19. 

One student was tested on March 13 at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital after learning that he had been in contact with the first Stanford undergraduate to test positive. On March 14, his test results reported that he was negative for seasonal coronavirus, but noted that he hadn’t yet been tested for COVID-19. 

“I was pretty excited that I didn’t have it,” he said. 

He drove to an Airbnb with five friends, all of whom have since gotten tested for COVID-19. The next day, his father told him to call the hospital back, saying that there was updated news. 

“And I checked, and there was a second report, and it said I was positive for COVID-19,” he said. “I was not happy to hear about that one.” 

For Fu, the preliminary test results reported that she was negative for “Coronavirus,” without noting that the result was for seasonal coronavirus, according to screenshots of her MyHealth report reviewed by The Daily. Greicius did not respond by The Daily’s deadline with a reason why the preliminary test results did not clarify what “Coronavirus” meant. 

At her test on Saturday, Fu — who, after experiencing mild symptoms, sought the test out of concerns that she might infect her parents or grandparents — was told that she would receive a call if she was positive for COVID-19 within 24 hours, she told The Daily. On Sunday morning, she woke up to her MyHealth report and the negative “Coronavirus” result. When she heard nothing else from the hospital, she assumed she was in the clear. 

The next evening, as she drove south with a friend through snowy highways, she missed a call from the hospital. When she stopped to get gas an hour later, she called back, but she wasn’t able to connect until the next day while with her father.

The nurse was calling to follow up on the test, Fu said.

“She was like, ‘Oh, did they tell you how to do your isolation stuff at home?’” Fu said. “And I’m like, ‘No, they didn’t, but I figure, since I’m negative, it’s just the basic quarantine stuff.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh. Oh, no, that’s not what I have. I have here that you tested positive.’ And I was like, ‘What?’”

Fu and the nurse both called the hospital to confirm, at which point Fu learned that the earlier negative result was just for seasonal coronavirus, not for COVID-19. 

“She said, ‘But we’ve taken [the seasonal coronavirus result] off now, because that was confusing a lot of people,’” Fu said. “Like, no shit!” 

Fu said the friend she traveled with also got tested for COVID-19 and is awaiting results. Fu’s father, Paul Fu, began experiencing symptoms himself on Sunday and is currently self-isolating as if he has COVID-19. He has not been tested. 

Paul told The Daily he thinks he got infected when his daughter came home over Parents’ Weekend in late February. That weekend, Santa Clara County confirmed its first community transmission COVID-19 case.

“Family Weekend is proceeding as scheduled and we continue to actively monitor the evolving situation surrounding COVID-19,” wrote University spokesperson E.J. Miranda in an email to The Daily on Feb. 28.

Paul, a pediatrician and informaticist at City of Hope in Southern California, told The Daily that he and his colleagues have been working on similar user experience issues: “She [my daughter] showed me [the report], and as soon as I saw it I was like, ‘Oh, I know what happened,’ because this is something that I and many of my colleagues have been dealing with across the country.” 

City of Hope changed its own respiratory virus panel test report, which similarly includes seasonal coronavirus, to make it clear that seasonal coronavirus was different from the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 as soon as testing for COVID-19 began, Paul said. 

“One of the things that we focus on when we put information out through patient portals is to empower our patients to become partners with us in delivering healthcare,” Paul said. “The other thing is to help them understand what the data means, and that how we present the data is clear and unambiguous.” 

Contact Erin Woo at erinkwoo ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Erin Woo '21 is a Managing Editor of News. A communications major and creative writing minor, she plans to pursue a career in journalism. She has also reported for The Mercury News and WNYC. Contact her at erinkwoo 'at' stanford.edu.