When did coronavirus first arrive? County briefing explores reports of early cases, discounts ‘patient zero’

Snohomish County Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters speaks during the remote press briefing Friday.

The recent flurry of stories and speculation about when and where the coronavirus first entered the United States and Snohomish County took center stage in Friday morning’s press briefing by the Joint Information Center (JIC), Snohomish County Emergency Coordination Center.

Speakers included County Executive Dave Somers, Snohomish Health District Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters, and Mark Murphy, Program Manager, Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management.

Originally called to provide an update on the county’s response to COVID-19, the briefing soon pivoted to critical background and explanation aimed at fleshing out the recent reports of at least two patients who experienced marked COVID-like symptoms in December and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies. The reports have raised questions about whether this means that the coronavirus arrived in the United States and Washington state earlier than previously known, and whether it is significant in combatting the virus.

“The emergence of these two cases of a COVID-like illness in December – well prior to the mid-January diagnosis of ‘patient zero’ – definitely raises questions about when things really did begin here in the U.S.,” Spitters said. “Unfortunately, some reporting yesterday conveyed a higher level of confidence in those cases than I as a public health official feel is warranted.”

Spitters went on explain that while the symptoms of the respiratory tract infections these patients experienced in December overlap those of other infections, no testing occurred at the time and so there is no way to know if these were indeed earlier cases of COVID-19. Most likely these individuals had a non-COVID infection in December, and subsequently had a non-symptomatic or minimally symptomatic COVID infection prior to the test that gave a positive result for antigens, he said.

“When you hear hoofbeats, assume that it’s horses not Zebras,” he continued. “The horse in this case is that they had a non-COVID infection in December, followed by a subsequent COVID infection from which they developed antibodies. We can’t say this with 100 percent certainty, but it’s the likely scenario.”

Spitters continued by pointing out the notion that patient zero was the introduction of what we now see occurring across the U.S. is “clearly false.” Rather, the emerging evidence points to multiple introductions and multiple strains of the virus.

“The strain introduced in January is the dominant one here in Washington and the Pacific Northwest, but other strains are dominant in other areas of the country,” he explained. “It’s definitely a multi-focal, a multi-source thing.”

Spitters concluded his remarks on this topic by stressing the need to put first things first, and that the question of when the infection first arrived here is not paramount in the battle with COVID-19.

“While when it got here is definitely of scientific and academic interest, it doesn’t change where we sit today and what we need to do to move ahead,” he said. “Our focus remains on controlling transmission, attempting to safely and incrementally return to normal life, and striking the correct balance between the physical, economic and social well-being and health of our citizens.  And that is where we want to put our limited resources.”

Spitters next addressed several reporter questions asking for clarification on efforts underway to re-examine pre-patient zero cases that might be COVID-19, and what techniques might be used to do this.  His responses reiterated his earlier remarks that no active efforts are being put into this now, adding that finding this out “wouldn’t move the needle” on what we have to do now: control the outbreak and safely return to normal activities.

Other questions touched on testing, to which Spitters responded that right now approximately 2,500 tests are being administered weekly, and that efforts are ramping up with a goal of reaching 5,000 per week.

A final question asked about antibodies, and whether their presence confers immunity. Spitters responded that at this point scientists simply don’t know, but that as time passes they hope to develop greater certainty.

County Executive Dave Somers

County Executive Dave Somers then took over, stressing that the county is fighting the infection on two fronts: Protecting health, and softening the economic impact on people’s lives.

He went on to thumbnail the various programs designed to help individuals and small businesses,  focusing on his proposal announced Friday to create two new grant programs for businesses: first, a Small Business Relief, Recovery, and Resiliency (R3) grant program; and, second, a First in Flight Fund for Paine Field Airport tenants and other aerospace businesses in Snohomish County impacted by COVID-19.

“Businesses are facing a critical moment in the COVID-19 pandemic,” Somers explained. “While some have been able to secure assistance from federal and state governments, not all have. Many of our local businesses need more. These grant programs would provide a direct injection of funds to help those most in need now. We are doing everything that we can to help keep employees paid and businesses viable. Small businesses are the backbone of our local economy. These resources would serve as a critical lifeline to many in the community who are on the frontlines of preserving and rebuilding our economy.”

Somers next addressed the First in Flight program.  Calling Paine Field the county’s “economic engine” that forms the backbone of our economy, the First in Flight Fund would assist tenants at the airport and other Snohomish County aerospace businesses sustain operations, keep local residents employed, and support the county’s overall recovery efforts. If approved by the county council, grants in amounts up to $1 million would be awarded to qualifying businesses.

In addition, Somers referenced other proposed programs to support businesses and workers, including a Blue Ribbon Economic and Workforce Recovery Taskforce, an Office of Economic Recovery and Resiliency, and extension of the deadline for individual property taxes.

For more information, go to www.snohomishcountywa.gov/5600/COVID-19-Business-Recovery, the county’s comprehensive page for residents and small businesses impacted by COVID-19.

Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management Program Manager Mark Murphy.

Last to speak was Mark Murphy, who outlined the Department of Emergency Management’s efforts to get needed supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) to where they are needed.

“We started out supplying hospitals, fire districts and law enforcement agencies,” he said.  “But this has grown to include long-term care and dental facilities. In all we’ve distributed more than 4 million pieces of PPE. It’s stunning – I’m humbled at how hard folks have been working here.”

A final flurry of reporter questions brought Spitters back to address progress with drug treatments including remdesivir and hydroxychloroquine.

“There is no magic potion yet,” Spitters explained. “While a study by the National Institutes of Health showed some marginal reduction in hospitalization associated with remdesivir, the results were not statistically significant and could have occurred by mere chance. The drug has received emergency approval by FDA for use as a mitigating factor that might have a partial benefit.”

Regarding hydroxychloroquine, Spitters pointed out that tests show that some patients have severe immune reactions to the drug, and that no significant findings have surfaced yet as to its efficacy.

— By Larry Vogel

  1. Many in December had the “Flu” at the beginning of December. Sick, and weak like they never had the flu before. Lasting at least 3 weeks. I had the senior double dose vaccination first of November. My wife had the “flu” a week before me. There are many of us that have the feeling we had Covid- 19. I certainly keep my distance and wear my mask into stores.

    1. I became ill in late Nov, 2019, sicker than I’ve been in my life, with bronchial congestion that just would not clear up even through 3 courses of OTC meds recommended by my PCP. At the time, I felt that the cause was something much stronger than any kind of “bug” I’d experienced in the 70+ years of my life. Symptoms did not fully resolve until very early Feb. though I was practicing all of the normal practices of fighting that type of illness… lots of liquids, hot tea, hot soup, extra rest. NOTHING seemed to affect whatever was making me ill. In fact, I coughed so long and so hard that I developed, and still suffer from, a urinary (bladder)prolapse.
      As my employment as a courier was taking me 5 days a week to multiple public locations, many elevators, and in close contact with dozens of people every day, I was exposed to countless types of pathogens and therefore used hygienic practices as regular habit.
      I am diabetic (type 2) and take methotrexate for RA. Being immunosuppressed, I’m aware of the risks and have self-quarantined since early March, and have rarely left my home since then, but wear a mask & use sanitizer when I do.

  2. The CDC did predict in Oct that this would be an extreme flu season. What we need is wider spread antibody testing to see how many people have already had Covid and just didn’t know it or thought they had the flu. That would go a long way to relieving people of the fear concerning Covid, which is why some are speculating on why this particular testing is lacking. How many people have been bunkered down for months when it didn’t matter?

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