CBS13 Investigates Troubled State Lab: Are False Positives or Sensitive Tests Responsible For School COVID Spikes?

At least one school district has stopped COVID testing after they say students got false-positive results from the state's troubled COVID-19 testing lab. Now, other districts suspect false positives and are calling for a moratorium on the required asymptomatic PCR testing of student athletes.

Video Transcript

- A Southern California School district has stopped COVID testing after they say students got false positive results from the state's troubled COVID testing lab. Now, the El Dorado Union High School District wants to know if false positives are to blame for hundreds of quarantined students there. And CBS 13 has learned the recent positivity rate for tests coming out of the state lab, is more than 60% higher than California's actual positivity rates.

- As CBS 13 Investigative Reporter Julie Watts reports, they're now calling for a moratorium on PCR testing for student athletes.

- We were also excited about what was going to be our first week back full time at school with everybody there.

JULIE WATTS: Instead, just two days after returning to campus, Reese and Riley were sent home to quarantine. They're among the 215 Oak Ridge students now quarantined because they had a so-called close contact with one of the 19 positive cases on campus over the past two weeks.

- This COVID just keeps taking stuff away from us you know.

JULIE WATTS: Like most of the quarantine kids, Reese and Riley didn't have symptoms. State guidelines require they test to play sports. Neither sister tested positive for the virus. But their brother, a wrestler, received an asymptomatic borderline positive result, a fraction of a point from the positivity cutoff. Forcing the girls to quarantine too, even after they tested positive for the antibodies and negative for the virus indicating they likely had a previous infection.

- It's really like affecting my mental health. Finally being able to go back in-person, then being stuck in front of a computer, and not being able to do any of my sports.

- It breaks my heart.

JULIE WATTS: Their mom, Pam, questions her son's borderline positive result. It was processed by the troubled state lab. Currently under investigation by state regulators following our investigation, which revealed whistle-blower allegations ranging from unlicensed lab techs, sleeping on the job, to incidents of contamination, swapped samples, wrong results. The state encourages schools to use the lab by offering subsidized tests, thanks to a $1.7 billion contract with Perkin Elmer.

- All of the money that's being spent on it, our children deserve better.

JULIE WATTS: Last week the Culver City School District announced it was suspending testing following an unprecedented number of false positives from the state lab, which were later confirmed by LA County Public Health.

- Our positivity rate has increased over 1,000% with the state lab.

JULIE WATTS: District Superintendent, Ron Caruth, says El Dorado Union, where Reese and Riley go to school, recently switched to the state lab. El Dorado's now calling for an investigation into their spike in positive tests among kids with no symptoms who later test negative. They believe the test is finding leftover dead virus fragments in kids who previously had COVID.

- We have questions about the accuracy and validity of the test.

JULIE WATTS: CBS 13 obtained internal email sent by top lab management, discussing a contamination issue ahead of the recent positive school tests. But, according to the state's own data, since it opened the labs positivity rate has been consistently higher than California's positivity rate overall. In February and March, the lab's positivity rate was more than 60% higher than the rest of the state. When we asked the state if they had identified the source of the LA County false positive results, CDPH ignored the question. Instead, boasting that theirs is among the most sensitive tests available, routinely detecting low level positive cases that may be missed by other labs and tests. But leading health experts, including Dr. Fauchi, say low level results aren't likely contagious.

- You know, it's just dead nucleotides, period.

- They're finding the actual genomic information of the virus.

JULIE WATTS: Nevada State Lab Director, Dr. Mark Pandori, explains PCR COVID tests are so sensitive, they can detect insignificant amounts of virus from contamination or old infections that may not actually pose a health threat. And the Perkin Elmer test used by the state is the most sensitive on the market. People who are getting positive results based on that weak level have real world consequences. Should we be resulting those as positive?

- As we come out of the pandemic, it's that question that we really have to grapple with.

JULIE WATTS: Many believe we should be moving toward rapid antigen testing for athletes because a positive test that doesn't actually pose a health threat, can have significant consequences. Why are they using such a sensitive test?

- We think it needs to be looked at before we do greater harm to students.

JULIE WATTS: For Reese and Riley, the damage is done.

- Our JV season was canceled because there wasn't enough players.

JULIE WATTS: Even though they never tested positive, their brother's borderline test had a ripple effect on their whole team.

- The El Dorado Union High School District now calling for a statewide moratorium on the required PCR testing for student athletes, asking the state to investigate the high rate of positive tests and revise its guidance.