Even under ideal circumstances, the best products will occasionally fail, Dr. Jha said.

“There is not something that is 100 percent perfect,” he said. “That’s why you do confirmatory tests.”

Alabama swiftly began its investigation into Saban’s positive result. There were medical reasons to try to confirm the result, but urgent football ones, too.

Less than a week before Saban said he had tested positive, the SEC’s chancellors and presidents had approved an update to the league’s medical protocols. Under the new policy, an asymptomatic person like Saban who tested positive for the virus could take another P.C.R. test within 24 hours. If that test yielded a negative result, the person could take two more P.C.R. tests, each separated by 24 hours. If all three results were negative, the player, coach or staff member could return to athletics.

It is unusual to administer a follow-up screening after someone tests positive by P.C.R., and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that such a result send an asymptomatic person into isolation for 10 days.

But in the weeks before Saban’s test, the conference had an experience with a false positive involving a soccer player at Texas A&M, Sports Illustrated reported. And the league’s medical experts had also begun to worry about the potential public health effects of an unchecked false positive: a person’s being dropped from routine testing and perhaps acquiring a sense of invincibility that they could no longer contract the virus — potential fodder for an outbreak, should that person be exposed.

“The repercussions for that false positive aren’t just for that athlete,” said Dr. Catherine O’Neal, an infectious disease specialist at Louisiana State University and a member of the SEC’s medical task force. “It puts the entire team at risk.”

Still, Dr. O’Neal said she had worried about endorsing a protocol that “debunks a test result.”

“There’s so much attention around the validity of these tests, and for us who work in health care, just convincing patients to trust us and trust getting tested has become a struggle,” she said. “We don’t want to give the perception that we don’t believe these tests.”



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