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Did you already have coronavirus in January or February?

a crowded New York City street near Broadway
(Image: © Shutterstock)

With the recent news that two Californians died of COVID-19 in February, three weeks earlier than the United States' first known death from the disease, it has become clear that the coronavirus was spreading in the United States long before it was detected by testing. 

This fact might have you wondering if that weird cough or recurrent fever you had in late January or February was actually COVID-19. It's not impossible, experts say, but it's not necessarily likely, either. The virus was certainly circulating during that time. However, what is unknown is how prevalent it was, especially compared with the other respiratory viruses of winter.

"The initial introduction of the virus in the U.S. coincided with the peak of the flu season, so the symptoms you had, it would be difficult to untangle with flu," said Matteo Chinazzi, an associate research scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, who is on a team that has been modeling the virus' spread around the world.

Related: Coronavirus outbreak: Live updates

COVID-19 timeline

The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 was first detected by testing in the United States in January. That case occurred in a 35-year-old man who was tested on Jan. 19, four days after returning from Wuhan to his home in Snohomish County, Washington.

But it wasn't until a month later, on Feb. 26, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first known case of community spread of coronavirus in the United States, in a California resident who had no known contact with a traveler from China. Just a few days later, a group of researchers studying flu test samples in Washington state discovered a sample that contained the genetic sequence for that coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. It belonged to a teenager who had contracted the virus in the community.

It is now  clear that the first cases of community spread in the United States weren't in late February, but instead were in January, when only travel-related cases were being caught and reported.

This is evident in a few different ways. First, the small genetic differences between the coronavirus in the Washington state teenager and in samples from Wuhan suggested that the virus had come over from Wuhan and had been circulating, and gradually mutating, over the course of about five weeks, infectious disease researcher Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center wrote in a blog post in early March.

Second, the newest death data also points to community spread of coronavirus in January. The first reported coronavirus death in the United States was thought to be a man in his 50s who died on Feb. 28 in King County, Washington. Autopsy results from two deaths in Kirkland, Washington, subsequently pushed the first known deaths in the U.S. back to Feb. 26.

On April 22, though, the CDC confirmed, based on autopsy results, that two people in Santa Clara county had died at home of COVID-19 on Feb. 6 and Feb. 17. Neither had a travel history and are thought to have caught the disease from community spread. Because COVID-19 typically has an incubation period of 5 to 6 days (and up to 14 days) between when people are infected and when they show symptoms, and because it usually takes several weeks after that for fatally ill patients to die, the early February deaths suggest that the individuals caught COVID-19 in mid- to late January.

Finally, modeling work based on travel patterns shows the virus arriving in New York in early January and in California by mid-January, Chinazzi told Live Science. Other states followed.

"What our model seems to indicate is that the first introduction of the virus in New York was around early January and more generally, what we see is that by the end of February, most of the states have been seeded and have local transmission," Chinazzi said.

The first confirmed community spread of the coronavirus in New York was in a lawyer from Westchester County who first went to the hospital for his symptoms on Feb. 27, New York 4 reported. Genetic studies of viral samples in New York now suggest that community spread began by late January, mostly from introductions of the virus from Europe. Researchers at both NYU Langone and Mount Sinai conducted those studies.

Epidemiologists in Colorado believe that the coronavirus landed in the Rocky Mountains somewhere between Jan. 20 and Jan. 30. The estimate comes from two different methods, Elizabeth Carlton, an epidemiologist at the University of Colorado School of Public Health, told Live Science. First, simple back-of-the-envelope calculations based on when the first detected cases in Colorado's outbreak reported symptoms suggest that those people got sick in that time frame. Second, the models that Carlton and her colleagues are using to track and forecast Colorado's cases fit the idea that the first cases in the state emerged between Jan. 20 and Jan. 30. (Colorado didn't report its first cases of the virus until March 4, according to Colorado Public Radio.)

"It's ski season in Colorado in January, so it's not hard to imagine that someone from one of the West Coast states came to Colorado to go skiing and brought an infection," Carlton said. "That's just one of many possible routes."

Data on excess deaths compared to previous years can also help reveal when coronavirus landed in a particular state. In Florida, for example, The Sun-Sentinel reported that a spike in pneumonia-related deaths in mid-March could point to a nascent coronavirus outbreak starting by at least late February.

Was that cough COVID-19?

Given differences in the timing of the virus's arrival and the severity of outbreaks so far, the chance that any given respiratory illness in January or February could have been COVID-19 depends on where you live: It's far more likely that a resident of Manhattan in New York City has already had the virus compared with a resident of Manhattan, Kansas.

Flu season clouds the issue. There's no national clearinghouse of influenza case statistics, and many people with flu are not given a flu swab to confirm the diagnosis, so no one knows exactly how many cases of influenza occurred in January or February either. But the CDC estimates that there were between 39 million and 56 million cases of flu in the U.S. between October 2019 and April 2020. That means that at the peak of flu season in January and February, the number of cases of influenza virus likely far outnumbered the coronavirus cases in the United States.

It's also hard to extrapolate back today's infection numbers to estimate the prevalence of coronavirus in January and February. That's because many cases of COVID-19 are still going undiagnosed by testing, and researchers still don't know how many people infected with coronavirus experience only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, Carlton and Chinazzi said.

Antibody studies, which look for immune-system proteins made when the body fights off a virus, can reveal approximately how many people in a population have been exposed. A research study that recruited people at grocery stores and tested their blood for antibodies to the coronavirus found that 1 in 7 people in New York state, and nearly 1 in 4 in New York City, has been exposed to the coronavirus. It's unclear whether those results will generalize to the population at large — people staying home to avoid even grocery stories might have lower infection rates, for example — but they do suggest that the chances of someone in New York having been infected already are not negligible. However, given that the virus spreads exponentially through the population, extrapolating back to January or February shrinks the number of active cases significantly, meaning that likely only a tiny fraction of people in the city were sick with COVID-19 at that time.

That means if you had respiratory symptoms in New York in January or February, chances are probably still better that it was the flu or a seasonally circulating coronavirus. 

Elsewhere, the chances of having had coronavirus in January or February are even less clear. Two controversial studies in California put the percent of people who had already been exposed at between 2.5% and 4.2% in Santa Clara county and at up to 5.6% in Los Angeles, but those data have been criticized as likely overestimating the exposure. Both may have inadvertently recruited participants who thought they might have been exposed, biasing the sample; in addition, the antibody tests they used had a high rate of false positives, making results unreliable when low levels of the population have been exposed to the disease.

In Colorado, epidemiologists are estimating that 1% of the population has already had COVID-19. A cough or fever in February would be more likely than one in January to be a symptom of COVID-19, Carlton said, simply because there would have been more circulating cases as time went on. But there's a lot of uncertainty in the 1% estimate given limitations in testing and the wide range of severity of symptoms, Carlton said.

"This is the question that everyone is interested in answering," she said. "How many people really have had it?" 

Originally published on Live Science.

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  • CCD-Pig
    Gotta wonder in my case. Mid January I developed what acted like a post-viral cough, something I always get after colds. No travel, not even to major US cities. So probably not COVID but as many times as I have had post viral cough, I have never had it w/o a clear viral infection first. Does make me wonder. No other symptoms at all, ever. Once serological tests are readily available, it might be worth seeing. Another data point if nothing else.
    Reply
  • Aspen20
    Interesting post. Around mid-January I had an awful fever followed by hacking cough that persisted for a week after spending several days skiing in Aspen/Vail. Met folks from LA, SF, Boston, Seattle, NYC, other countries too (Europe/Australia/NZ). The illness was bizarre - I thought my chest was going to explode, the cough was very deep and intense. I get a flu shot every year, so I wondered what could've caused it. Might be a good idea to check seroprevalence in ski towns, many of us suspect a lot of infection there and since many are relatively healthy, they could be asymptomatic and spread the virus to other areas.
    Reply
  • CCD-Pig
    One of the common differences between the flu and COVID (as well as some other non-flu and non-COVID illnesses) is that flu very commonly has some pretty severe muscle aches, typically in the major leg muscles, but other muscles as well. This is less common (but not unheard of) with COVID and some other viral illnesses.
    Reply
  • Aspen20
    CCD-Pig said:
    One of the common differences between the flu and COVID (as well as some other non-flu and non-COVID illnesses) is that flu very commonly has some pretty severe muscle aches, typically in the major leg muscles, but other muscles as well. This is less common (but not unheard of) with COVID and some other viral illnesses.
    Agree with you. I found it odd that I didn't have any muscle aches (I've had a bad episode of flu in 2009 with severe muscle aches and that's why I now get vaccinated for flu every year, and I haven't had it since). Last January, I just a fever for 3 days, then nonstop coughing. I was tired and exhausted after coughing too much ... my lungs ached. I felt fatigued but probably that's because I couldn't sleep properly. Would be interested if we did have COVID19 then!
    Reply
  • likota39
    admin said:
    The coronavirus started spreading within the United States in January, but chances that you have had it are probably low.
    I am an 80 year old male in good health and in physical form. I have been staying in Europe (Bosnia) since November 2019, where I was vaccinated against the flu. About December 20., I got an unusual chest cold that developed very fast—within a period of about 24 hours—with feeling of discomfort and pressure in the lungs. I never had the same signs of cold before in my life. The situation was daily progressing for worse and soon I started coughing flam. However, I did not have a fever (I usually do not develop it when having colds) although I felt sick and restless, but I did not have to stay in bed. That ‘chest cold‘ or whatever it was lasted about 5-6 weeks, which was too long for my every year winter blues.
    The only remedy I used was an equal mix of 100% etheric oils: basil, oregano, and tea tree that I was sniffing through the nose and mouth a few times during a day. And each time I did it, I felt kind of relief. As long as I can remember, whenever I get a cold I get my sinuses inflamed. This time nothing happened and I believe this positive development was due to etheric oil sniffing.
    I will wait for the pandemic to settle down before I check my blood for a possible covid19 signs.
    Reply
  • CCD-Pig
    A bit of new data today from France on this subject. BTW, this is a great website for infectious disease, I have been checking it out for a year or more:

    https://www.contagionlive.com/news/new-study-suggests-covid19-was-spreading-in-france-in-december
    Reply
  • Jammy1
    admin said:
    The coronavirus started spreading within the United States in January, but chances that you have had it are probably low.

    Did you already have coronavirus in January or February? : Read more
    I got sick around the 7th of December, started with a fever that wouldn't break, no nasal congestion. I just remember feeling like I had been hit with a truck, not because of muscle ache but just felt weak, went to the doctor 2 days later and was tested negative for the flu, and it was not bronchitis, he said it was a virus and gave me a steroid shot, antibiotics, and something for chest congestion, because I had quickly developed a rattle on my chest. The cough was a deep cough that just racked my body and lasted 3.5 weeks, I had my sense of smell but I lost my sense of taste.
    I have been wondering if I got a strain of Coronavirus and has it mutated into what it is now. Would be nice to be able to get an antibody test, but I don't qualify for one, according to the dept. of health.
    Reply
  • CCD-Pig
    Jammy1 said:
    Would be nice to be able to get an antibody test, but I don't qualify for one, according to the dept. of health.

    Tell me about it. I know they are short of tests, but these somewhat arbitrary standards, most set by health departments, are getting in the way of getting a handle on this. We have a virus that often has few if any symptoms and they are saying we need "X" symptoms to get a test (either type). Typical rigid and stupid government policy. It ought to be up to the physician, period.
    Reply
  • Jammy1
    Agreed...
    Reply
  • nhsnowboarder
    I wonder the same thing. I spent 3 days snowboarding in BC in a cat with 12 people
    4 from San Francisco, 3 from Portland and 3 from Seattle and the two of us from New England.
    Feb 2 came down with all the symptoms of COVID, took weeks to shake
    Reply