The record shows that the first confirmed U.S. case of the novel coronavirus was Jan. 21 in Snohomish County, Washington, but not even the county health officer believes that anymore, calling it “clearly false.”
The county has found two “probable” cases of COVID-19 that date back to December, marking what may be the first time that the devastating illness has been traced in the United States before Jan. 1, before the Chinese government alerted the World Health Organization to the virus’s existence on Dec. 31.
“I think it’s reasonable to assume given the reports like the ones that we had and others around the country that the introduction may have occurred prior to mid-January, as we initially suspected,” Snohomish County health officer Dr. Chris Spitters said at a Friday press briefing.
He said recent serological testing revealed that 35 residents carry coronavirus antibodies, which reveal that the carrier has contracted and recovered from the illness. Those people also may hold some degree of resistance to a second infection, although WHO has stressed that there is “no evidence” of immunity, given the lack of research on the recently detected pathogen.
Subsequent interviews showed that two suffered in December from “a constellation of symptoms that sound like it could have been COVID-19,” raising more doubts about the U.S. “patient zero,” the 35-year-old Snohomish County man who tested positive Jan. 21 after visiting Wuhan.
“[T]wo of those individuals with the positive serologic results reported a Covid-like illness back in December of 2019, which as you know is about a month or so prior to when we first recognized the initial detected case in Snohomish County in the individual who had arrived from China,” said Dr. Spitters. “That of course raises a lot of questions about when things really did begin in the U.S.”
He said the finding “doesn’t really change where we sit today” in terms of treating patients, but the implications for public health and foreign policy could be profound.
From a public health perspective, the earlier the disease’s date of U.S. onset, the greater the number of Americans who have likely been infected with the contagion. That would suggest that the disease is far more prevalent as well as less deadly than previously feared.
An initial outbreak on U.S. shores dating back to December instead of January would also add another layer of doubt on the Chinese Communist Party’s official version of the virus’s progress.
On the last day of 2019, the WHO China Country Office said the Chinese government reported “cases of pneumonia unknown etiology,” calling the disease “preventable and controllable,” while the Wuhan health office announced 27 cases of viral pneumonia traced back to a seafood market.
The Chinese government already has faced widespread condemnation for cracking down on Chinese doctors who tried to spread the word about the outbreak in December; waiting six days from Jan. 14 to Jan. 20 to warn the public about the contagious new coronavirus strain, and for reportedly concealing the disease’s severity in order to hoard international supplies.
The Snohomish findings come as states and counties continue to roll back their initial estimates on the first onset of the novel coronavirus.
Governors in Colorado and Ohio have announced that their first cases of novel coronavirus were likely in January, not March, as previously thought. In Michigan, recent state data shows the disease was already established by the time the first case was reported March 10, according to the Bridge.
In California, university studies released in April out of Santa Clara and Los Angeles counties — which have not yet been peer-reviewed — found the infection far more prevalent that previously realized based on antibody testing.
Jeff Smith, chief executive of Santa Clara County, told county leaders at an April briefing that the virus was “freewheeling in our community and has probably been here for quite some time,” saying it likely arrived “back in December.”
“This wasn’t recognized because we were having a severe flu season,” Mr. Smith told the Los Angeles Times. “Symptoms are very much like the flu. If you got a mild case of COVID, you didn’t really notice. You didn’t even go to the doctor. The doctor maybe didn’t even do it because they presumed it was the flu.”
Other countries are also moving up their timelines. In Brazil, molecular testing by researchers at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation found that a man in Rio de Janeiro likely died of COVID-19 between Jan. 19-25, shaving two months off the previously recorded first death of March 16, the BBC reported.
In Snohomish County, Dr. Spitters was cautious about the finding, emphasizing the residents who were sick in December were not tested for COVID-19, and that their symptoms “overlapped greatly with other respiratory infections.”
“There’s a saying in medicine, when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras,” he said. “The horse in that scenario would be that they had a non-COVID infection in December, and then subsequently got infected with Covid but didn’t know it, developed antibodies, and here they are.”
He said that molecular epidemiological analysis have shown that there are different strains of the novel coronavirus that were apparently introduced in different states.
“Although that strain introduced or apparently introduced in mid-January is the dominant one in this Pacific Northwest region or in Washington, there are other strains that are dominant in other parts of the country,” he said. “So this is a multi-focal problem, not something that just spread from a single introduction.”