Was coronavirus here in December? Health officer has doubts

Antibody tests were positive for two patients who had symptoms a month before the first confirmed U.S. case.

Dr. Chris Spitters, the Snohomish Health District Health officer. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Dr. Chris Spitters, the Snohomish Health District Health officer. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

EVERETT — The first COVID-19 cases in Snohomish County might have occurred in December, a month before the country’s first known infection was confirmed in Everett, antibody test results show.

Two county residents who tested positive for coronavirus antibodies — meaning they were previously infected with the virus — both told the Snohomish Health District that they experienced COVID-19 symptoms in December, predating the county’s and the country’s first documented case, in late January. But district Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters cast doubt on that theory during a Friday briefing with reporters.

“The symptoms that those individuals reported overlap greatly with other respiratory-tract infections,” he said. “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, then subsequently had an asymptomatic COVID infection. We can’t say that with 100% certainty — I just think that’s the more likely scenario.”

As of Thursday, 35 county residents had tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies. The health district hasn’t completed interviews with all of them yet, Spitters said.

“That means there were probably more unrecognized cases and deaths, but beyond that, I don’t think it changes where we’re at right now,” he said. “Let’s keep our hands on the steering wheel and not the rear-view mirror.”

There is no active effort to re-examine earlier deaths that might be connected to the virus. Resources are too limited, Spitters said. The benefit of antibody testing is to gauge the level of prior infection in the county, he said.

The Seattle Times late Thursday first reported the two possible early infections, noting there is “doubt among medical doctors, research scientists and others that the Snohomish County man who tested positive on Jan. 20 is the purported Patient Zero who introduced the coronavirus to the U.S.”

The theory that the man was the country’s only source of the coronavirus is “clearly false,” Spitters said.

“Although that strain, apparently introduced in January, is the dominant one in Washington, there are other strains that are dominant in other parts of the country,” he said. “Needless to say … there is uncertainty about when exactly the virus was first introduced into the U.S.”

Also on Friday, county leaders gave an update on coronavirus testing and the supply of personal protective equipment.

Across hospitals, clinics and the health district, medical staff are testing about 2,500 Snohomish County residents each week.

The goal is to get to 5,000 weekly tests, Spitters said.

To help, the health district is rolling out another two-day drive-thru testing site next week, this time in the north end of the county. More information will be announced next week.

Additionally, more than 4 million pieces of personal protective equipment have been distributed to hospitals, clinics, long-term care homes, dentists offices and law enforcement agencies, local Department of Emergency Management program manager Mark Murphy said during the Friday briefing.

As of Friday, the health district reported a cumulative 2,767 infections confirmed by test results since the outbreak began and 299 cases deemed “probable” COVID-19 infections due to symptomatic close contact with a confirmed case. The count of fatalities in the county was 126. Statewide, there have been nearly 18,000 infections and almost 1,000 deaths.

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; jthompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

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