Why a negative COVID test doesn’t ‘clear’ you for holiday gatherings

A coronavirus testing center at Union Station
A coronavirus testing center at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Amid growing signs that many people are not heeding warnings to avoid Christmas gatherings and travel, some people are getting COVID-19 tests in hopes of being “cleared” to enjoy the holidays in groups.

This happened before Thanksgiving with disastrous results: Many attended holiday events and got sick, causing the coronavirus to spread uncontrolled, filling hospitals and contributing to a worsening surge.

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer urged people not to believe that a negative test result means it’s safe to attend or host a holiday gathering with people from more than one household.


“By the time you get a negative test result, you may no longer be negative,” Ferrer said. “And even if you have no symptoms, you can easily infect others.”

Sometimes people can test negative even though they are actually infected, because the virus hasn’t yet replicated to detectable levels.

Relying on testing to determine whether it’s safe to gather “is a very dangerous strategy,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, the L.A. County health services director.

“It’s one that has failed and is a large part of what has led us to the situation that we are in today,” Ghaly said. “So, please, celebrate the holiday just with your household .... Please leave those in-person celebrations with extended family members or with friends until later in 2021.”

At Los Angeles International Airport on Monday, about 20 people stood in line to receive a COVID-19 test in Terminal 2 at one of a handful of testing locations scattered throughout the airport.


Max Salit, 22, opted to use the airport’s $125 testing service after arriving on a Delta flight from Florida. A resident of Chicago, Salit had been staying with his parents in the Tampa, Fla., area for the last several months, and decided it was finally time to venture out.

He’ll be staying at an Airbnb rental in Los Angeles until he gets the results of his rapid test, he said, at which point he’ll “crash on a friend’s couch.” He and his friends plan to spend Christmas hiking in Joshua Tree National Park.

“It’s not like I’m coming to L.A. to go clubbing,” Salit said — although some of his friends had proposed a “party trip” to Miami instead of the desert.

“There’s an end in sight,” Salit told his friends, referring to the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines. “We just need to hold on for a couple of months.”

Yet, Ferrer said any kind of gathering can constitute risky behavior.

“If we don’t change how we’re going to celebrate the winter holidays, we’ll experience a surge on top of a surge on top of a surge,” she said. “Our hospitals are already over capacity, and the high-quality medical care we’re accustomed to in L.A. County is beginning to be compromised as our frontline health care workers are beyond stretched to the limit.”

At the coronavirus testing kiosk near Union Station’s entrance Monday, about a dozen people waited in line to swab their mouths and pass the sample to a healthcare worker through a secure submission box.


Kaley Mahoney, 31, was getting tested so she could spend Christmas with her friends.

“I am concerned, but I’ve been isolated so I feel OK,” said Mahoney, a food delivery driver. “It gets worse when you listen to the news.”

One group in line included a mother and her four children, among them a son whose girlfriend tested positive for the coronavirus.

It took three days for the five of them to get an appointment, said the mother, Mary Sanchez — a nerve-racking wait because her son’s girlfriend had been at her house several times with “cold symptoms.”

Sanchez said her family will be sticking close together in their Boyle Heights home on Christmas, where they’re safest from the surge.