Some Americans are convinced they had the coronavirus in December or January. Experts say it's highly unlikely.

Crystal Cox/Business Insider
  • The novel coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China in December. The first known case in the US was reported January 21.
  • Some Americans think they had the disease in December or earlier in January, though, and are questioning what that would mean if they’re right.
  • Experts say there’s no evidence COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus was in the US earlier than reported, and that people likely had a cold, the flu, or another coronavirus strain.
  • There’s no way to know if you already had COVID-19 until there’s a widely available antibody test, but that won’t tell you when you were exposed.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Scott Ware and his fiancée spent a long afternoon in San Francisco’s Chinatown on December 12, 2019.

Within a few days, fatigue, fever, a dry cough, and “very oddly restrictive breathing” set in. “I couldn’t explain it well then, but it was like something was trying to stop me from breathing,” the 35-year-old technology product developer in Seattle told Business Insider.

As he began to recover, the health of his fiancée, who has asthma, declined. “She complained of how it felt that her chest was caving in, that she could barely catch her breath, and over and over nightly she said she felt like she could’ve died in her sleep,” Ware said. “I didn’t know how serious to take it.”

Now, he thinks “it” was COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“We never connected the dots until I read an article stating that some people in the US who experienced flu-like symptoms in November and December may have contracted COVID-19,” said Ware, who, like his fiancée, has completely recovered. “All of a sudden, I realised how we immersed ourselves in Chinatown for a full day, and that it was within days of being there that we both became ill.”

The US didn’t identify its first COVID-19 case until January 21, when it was found in Washington state. But like Ware, many Americans are looking back at their December and early January illnesses with COVID-19 vision, and wondering if – and, in some cases, declaring that – they had the virus before it was detected in the US or their areas.

But experts say there’s no evidence the illness was in the US earlier this winter and that similar symptoms are likely coincidental. Even if people did have the virus, there’s no way to know – even antibody testing, when it becomes widely available, may not be 100% accurate and won’t reveal the date of infection.

Work sickRubberBall Productions/Getty

COVID-19 or coincidence?

Bonnie Haymaker’s daughter came from Seattle to visit her mum in Boise, Idaho, for Christmas, and brought along her sickness.

On December 30, Haymaker fell ill with congestion, coughing, and a sore throat. On January 2, her doctor diagnosed her with a viral upper respiratory tract infection. She now thinks it was COVID-19.

Plenty of others have taken to social media with similar declarations.

Despite the eerie similarity of many Americans’ reported symptoms to the novel coronavirus, experts say their experiences were most likely a cold, flu, or another strain of the coronavirus, all of which peak in winter months and can have the same symptoms of COVID-19.

“The challenge with COVID is the symptoms overlap with a lot of other respiratory illnesses,” Danielle Ompad, an epidemiologist at NYU’s School of Global Public Health, told Business Insider. “People may have been sick but it may not have been COVID.”

Researchers have also looked at whether there were any abnormal peaks in “mystery respiratory illnesses” in the early part of the season, and have come up empty.

One of them, Trevor Bedford, a Fred Hutchinson Cancer Centre scientist, said his research with the Seattle Flu Study confirms there was no outbreak in the US before January or February, despite rumours it had been spreading around California as early as November.

His team had already tested 3,600 people for flu and other respiratory ailments over the fall and winter, and has since retested the samples for COVID-19. They found no positives among the samples collected in January and 10 positives in February.

“There is no chance of confusion between these in our assay,” Bedford tweeted. “It’s empirically true that the Seattle flu season in Oct through Jan was not the result of COVID-19. We would have seen it in these data. Given travel connections between WA and CA there is no way that COVID-19 was widely circulating in CA, but we see zero cases in WA.”

When the virus entered certain US communities is still unclear

When the virus entered various US communities after January 21, though, has been tougher to nail down. One ongoing study in Michigan, where the first cases were reported March 10, so far finds “no evidence that the novel coronavirus was present in the community before March.”

But research in New York has suggested the virus was circulating as early as mid-February, even though the first case wasn’t reported until March 1.

Pro soccer player Carli Lloyd, who’s based in neighbouring New Jersey, suspects she and her husband fell victim back then. “I think my husband and I had the Coronavirus back in mid-February. A sickness we have never felt before,” she tweeted on March 20.

Joyce, a 55-year-old in Maryland, suspects the virus also came to her community, well before the state’s first reported cases March 5. After a shopping trip in Virginia on what she recalls was January 18, she shared an UberPool with a woman who’d recently returned from China, and had just completed her 14th day of self-quarantine.

Days later, symptoms – including coughing, body aches, a fever, and tight chest – hit. “Some of the symptoms I have never felt before,” Joyce, who asked to use her first name only for privacy reasons, told Business Insider. “Particularly the jab in my joints. It felt like someone was stabbing my joints with glass and tightening my chest.”

Joyce spent the next five days in her basement, flushing her system with hot tea and lemon, and inhaling steam spiked with Vick’s VapoRub – a family remedy that goes back generations. She quickly recovered and only later began to think what she had could have been COVID-19.

Antibody testOmar Marques/Getty ImagesA health worker extracts blood from a patient to perform an antibody test for COVID-19 at the Dworska Hospital in Krakow, Poland on April 9, 2020.

There’s no way to know if your past illness was COVID-19

While the precise dates that the virus entered the US and certain communities will be important public health knowledge for the history books, they won’t affect the trajectory of the pandemic now, Ompad said.

There’s also no way to know if your winter sickness was indeed COVID-19 if you didn’t get tested for it at the time.

“Just because you have a positive antibody test doesn’t mean you were infected in December,” Ompad said. All it means is you were exposed to the virus at some point, and it may not have even caused symptoms.

Because it’s still not clear whether or not having COVID-19 makes you immune, people who think or know they had it should take the same precautions as people who haven’t yet gotten sick: stay inside as much as possible, wash your hands and high-touch surfaces frequently, and wait.

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