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2 Washington cases of 'COVID-19-like illness' in December raise questions about when disease arrived in US

Bridge over Snohomish river in Everett, Washington.
(Image: © Shutterstock)

Two residents of Snohomish County, Washington, who fell ill with COVID-19-like symptoms in December have now tested positive for antibodies against the new coronavirus. The findings suggest the virus might have arrived in the U.S. earlier than thought.

One of these residents — identified only by her middle name Jean — says she fell ill shortly after Christmas with a dry cough, fever and body aches, according to The Seattle Times. Her illness eventually required two trips to the doctor along with chest X-rays and a prescription for an inhaled medication. At the time, COVID-19 had not been formally discovered or named as a disease entity. But this month, Jean received news from her doctor that a blood test showed she was positive for COVID-19 antibodies, The Seattle Times reported. 

Nearly a month later, on Jan. 21, the first known case of COVID-19 in the U.S. would be reported in a Snohomish County man who had recently traveled to Wuhan, China.

Jean's test result isn't definitive proof that she had COVID-19 in December, because it doesn't show when she was infected. But local health officials who reviewed the results say that Jean is one of two people in the county found to test positive for coronavirus antibodies after falling ill with a COVID-19-like illness in December.

"They are being considered 'probable' [cases]," Heather Thomas, a Snohomish Health District spokeswoman, told The Seattle Times on Thursday (May 14).

However on Friday (May 15), Dr. Chris Spitters, the district's health officer, clarified that the word "probable" in this public health context doesn't mean the same thing as it would in everyday life. In this case, public health officials have to put cases into "certain buckets" to classify them, but those classifications may not match what they actually had, Spitters said in a COVID-19 briefing.

What's more, Spitters stressed that "the symptoms that those [two] individuals reported … overlap greatly with other respiratory tract infections," and it's possible they had something else. "There was no testing of those infections that occurred at the time, so it's possible and frankly, I think, more likely that they had a non-COVID respiratory viral illness in December and subsequently had an asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic COVID infection," he said. (In this scenario, it would be that later infection that wasn't obvious that imparted the person with COVID-19 antibodies.)

Still, experts say it's possible COVID-19 did come to the U.S. prior to the first reported case in mid-January. In France, doctors recently found genetic material from COVID-19 in  samples taken from a patient treated in December, Live Science previously reported

"The amount of air travel into and out of Wuhan was enormous, probably thousands and thousands of people," Dr. Art Reingold, a public health epidemiologist at the University of California at Berkeley, told The Seattle Times. "It follows that there [were] likely multiple introductions around the world, quite possibly in December." Rather than a single "patient zero," the disease was likely introduced into the country multiple times, he said.

Spitters acknowledged that, saying "I think it's reasonable to assume, given reports like the ones that we've had and others around the country, that introduction may have occurred prior to mid-January." However, "while that's of scientific and academic interest, it doesn't really change where we sit today or where we have to move ahead in the future." 

Originally published on Live Science.  

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  • Gailso
    I feel covid was in the UK on the late Autumn about November time onwards as many of my family were ill with different things not flu. My husband had a recurring dry cough for months, my father in lawn and brother in law had high temps, chills and coughs over Christmas. I had a terrible dry cough that I couldn't shake off for about 8 weeks and lost my voice. My daughter had a norovirus type of illness very physically sick and diarrhoea in Feb and my neighbour put her back out she was coughing do much late November/early December.
    Reply
  • alvaroafernandez
    I have coworkers from Wuhan who are in a different office. Around late November, I was in their proximity, and also flew across the US a bit later in the month.

    Felt suddenly ill, cough, chills. I was at a conference though, so did I get it from my coworkers, from people on the plane? Was it the flu (I took a flu shot this season, but they say it wasn't as effective this year). It's suspicious, but not definitive.

    Thing is, I never get the flu. But I have had pneumonia twice in my life, and that's my two meter exhaust port above the main port.
    Reply
  • Gailso
    alvaroafernandez said:
    I have coworkers from Wuhan who are in a different office. Around late November, I was in their proximity, and also flew across the US a bit later in the month.

    Felt suddenly ill, cough, chills. I was at a conference though, so did I get it from my coworkers, from people on the plane? Was it the flu (I took a flu shot this season, but they say it wasn't as effective this year). It's suspicious, but not definitive.

    Thing is, I never get the flu. But I have had pneumonia twice in my life, and that's my two meter exhaust port above the main port.
    Yes its interesting isn't it. I don't know how we all became ill but we were and as you say its not definitive but interesting all the same. Non of our family or my neighbour had travelled but were still quite poorly non the less.
    Reply
  • Freda Burns
    Has anyone look into these deaths on Fiji last year? Covid like symptoms - They never figured out these earlier - just a thought https://abcnews.go.com/International/investigation-american-couples-mysterious-death-fiji-weeks-officials/story?id=63548975&fbclid=IwAR0dywaNWkU6SWaL7AnMsTB6-mKQRTYY20ZbA4GgK9zdPPbHG8RFkH0ntt0
    Reply
  • Dawgus
    Around Dec. 15 I sat next to a university student at a table In a school who was coughing. He said he had never been so sick in his life. Was tested for flu and other illness found out he did not have anything identifiable. Three days later I got it but took Zicam every 3 hours like I usually do when sick. I couldn’t get out of bed for 2 days. The weird thing about it all? I had no sense of taste or smell for 2-3 weeks after...
    Reply