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Antibody test results from across US suggest coronavirus was in the country earlier than originally believed

Positive COVID-19 antibody tests of people who suffered from coronavirus-like illnesses in December are across the country.

Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first case of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. on Jan. 21. The patient in Washington state who had returned from the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan, China.

Five days later, the second and third COVID-19 cases were identified in California, both had traveled from Wuhan. However, new antibody test results are suggesting that COVID-19 could have been in the United States a month earlier than previously believed and was all across the country, not just the West Coast.

A 64-year-old nurse from Washington state felt sick on Dec. 27, 2019, experiencing symptoms of a dry cough that caused her to hack up blood, a fever, body aches, and a "wheeze that rattled her lungs," according to the Seattle Times. In the weeks leading up to her sickness, the woman said she didn't leave her home very much. She did her normal grocery shopping, met a friend for lunch, a holiday lighting event, and a trip to her rheumatologist's office in Seattle.

She visited her doctor twice for her mysterious illness, where she underwent an X-ray. She was prescribed several medications, including "DuoNeb," an inhalation solution used to treat asthma that relaxes muscles in the airways and increases airflow to the lungs. The woman's condition slowly improved.

The woman didn't think she contracted the coronavirus because she hadn't traveled abroad and experienced her ailments three weeks before the first U.S. case was announced. Then on May 1, her doctor informed her that a serology test found the coronavirus antibodies in her blood sample.

The nurse isn't alone; there's a fellow resident of Washington's Snohomish County who also had a positive antibody test that links a coronavirus-like illness back to December.

"They are being considered 'probable,'" Heather Thomas, a Snohomish Health District spokeswoman, told the Seattle Times on Thursday. "However, they are not captured in our case counts from Jan. 20 forward."

The first confirmed U.S. case was also a resident of Snohomish County, but didn't arrive at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport from China until Jan. 15, and contacted doctors on Jan. 19.

There are other people across the country who got seriously sick in December with symptoms that mirror the coronavirus ailments. An anonymous couple in central Pennsylvania have a similar story as the woman in Washington state.

A couple from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, said they suffered from a debilitating illness in December. The husband's malady was so severe that he was hospitalized. They both were tested for influenza A and B, as well as strep throat. The tests came back negative, according to WJAC-TV.

The couple underwent serology tests last week, and they both had COVID-19 antibodies, meaning they were infected with the coronavirus at some point. The first confirmed case of the coronavirus in Pennsylvania was announced on March 6.

A Minnesota man believes he had the coronavirus in December. Richard Zurich from South St. Paul told KMSP-TV that his antibody test came back positive last month.

Zurich said the last time he was sick was back in December, a couple of weeks before Christmas. He said that he had a mild cold, a scratchy throat, and a loss of taste and smell, which is a symptom of COVID-19. He visited his parents during the holidays; they later became sick with fever, chills, exhaustion, and a dry cough.

"Just looking at the timeline of when I traveled and had the loss of taste and smell, it's all adding up," Zurich said. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Minnesota was announced on March 6.

"Yes I'm still going to play it safe and abide by social distancing rules they have set out for us but it does give me a little bit of hope that I've already had this," Zurich said.

There are two deaths in California that have health officials questioning if the coronavirus was in the U.S. far earlier than believed.

"The virus was freewheeling in our community and probably has been here for quite some time," said Dr. Jeff Smith, a physician and chief executive of the Santa Clara County government. Smith noted that the coronavirus was likely in California "back in December," as reported by the Los Angeles Times.

"This wasn't recognized because we were having a severe flu season," Smith added. "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."

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