She came down with a bug two days after Christmas, and for the next week or so, Jean, a 64-year-old retired nurse, suffered through a series of worsening symptoms: a dry, hacking cough, a fever and body aches, and finally, a wheeze that rattled her lungs.
But after two trips to the doctor, chest X-rays and prescriptions for several medications, including a “DuoNeb” solution inhaled through a nebulizer device commonly used to treat asthma, her condition slowly improved.
Months later, after the novel coronavirus pandemic had exploded across Western Washington, the nation and into American consciousness, Jean and dozens of others like her, have wondered if their early winter colds really were undiagnosed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. But her case didn’t seem to fit the profile. She hadn’t traveled abroad, and the official timeline was off: The first known patient infected by COVID-19 — a Snohomish County man who’d recently traveled to China — wasn’t even confirmed until more than three weeks after she became ill.
“When I got sick, I didn’t even know what COVID-19 was,” said Jean, a resident of rural Snohomish County who asked only to be identified by her middle name.
But after Jean received word from her doctor earlier this month that a highly touted serology test found a sample of her blood positive for antibodies to COVID-19, she’s now convinced the official timeline is wrong — and public health officials say she may be right.
Jean is among two Snohomish County residents who have positive serology tests potentially linked to COVID-like illnesses dating back to December, throwing into question whether the coronavirus arrived in Washington, and the United States, earlier than previously known.
Although neither case offers ironclad proof of that – an antibody test can’t pinpoint exactly when someone was exposed to the virus – each patient’s test results, combined with the clinical symptoms in December, appear to meet the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) case definitions for COVID-19.
“They are being considered ‘probable,’” Heather Thomas, a Snohomish Health District spokeswoman, said in an email Thursday. “However, they are not captured in our case counts from Jan. 20 forward.”
After The Seattle Times asked about Jean’s case this week, the local health district said it had a second positive antibody case involving a person who showed symptoms in December, but provided no further details. Thomas said the district’s health officer, Dr. Chris Spitters, is planning to talk about the cases during a Friday news briefing. A brief report accounting for all of the district’s known reports of positive antibody tests, about 30, would be issued, Thomas said.
The two cases provide more circumstantial fodder to mounting 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 man had been traveling solo since November in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak appears to have originated. He returned to the Seattle area on Jan. 15 and days later began showing symptoms.
“My own guess is that there wasn’t one introduction or Patient Zero who brought the virus to the United States,” said Dr. Art Reingold, a public health epidemiologist at the University of California at Berkeley. “There were likely earlier and multiple introductions of the virus.”
Because the virus’s undetected spread in Washington and elsewhere predated broad testing in the United States, a definitive timeline for COVID-19-related cases and deaths remains in question, scientists say.