EVERETT, WA — In a press call with reporters Friday morning, Snohomish County's health officer pushed back on the idea that a Washington man was "patient zero" for the coronavirus in the United States, and raised doubts over two potential cases from as early as December.
In mid-January, a Snohomish County man became the first known coronavirus patient in the nation, raising an early warning sign of the virus's presence in the U.S. A few days later, an Illinois woman was diagnosed with the second known case, and by the end of the month, the federal government had declared a public health emergency.
The earliest cases were detected only in patients who had recently traveled abroad, and the virus's ability to spread person-to-person did not become widely known until late February, shortly before the first death linked to COVID-19 was announced in King County.
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On Friday, Snohomish County's top health official said the idea that the Washington man was the definitive source for the disease in the United States was "clearly false."
"Molecular epidemiologic analysis has shown that there are multiple different strains of the virus," said Dr. Chris Spitters, the Snohomish County health officer. "And 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."
Spitters said health officials do not know for sure when the coronavirus arrived in Washington, and it may have appeared earlier than the first confirmed case.
"I think that kind of brings us around to acknowledging that there is uncertainty about when exactly the virus was first introduced into the U.S.," Spitters said. "Maybe it was that individual that was the first introduction in January. It certainly wasn't the only one and, you know, 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, as we initially suspected."
The Seattle Times reported on Thursday that antibody tests recently returned positive for two patients who told the health district they experienced symptoms similar to COVID-19 back in December.
Spitters was skeptical those specific patients had the disease at the time and said it seemed more likely they had another illness, before later contracting the coronavirus.
"The symptoms that those individuals reported, you know, overlap greatly with other respiratory tract infections," Spitters 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 in December, and subsequently to that and prior to now."
The Everett Herald reports 35 Snohomish County residents have tested positive for antibodies to date, but the health district is still working to complete their interviews.
Lab tests have confirmed at least 2,767 coronavirus cases in Snohomish County, and 2,329 patients are classified as recovered. At least 126 county residents have died from complications linked to COVID-19.