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Snohomish health officer: Coronavirus may have arrived earlier than previously thought

Snohomish County's health officer says it's possible that the coronavirus arrived in Washington state earlier than previously thought.

Dr. Chris Spitters said 35 people have tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies and described in interviews having had symptoms that matched the illness. The Seattle Times reported that two of them became sick in December, weeks before the person who has come to be referred to as “patient zero” returned from Wuhan, China, and proved to be infected with the virus.

That man arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Jan. 15 and later became sick. The Washington Department of Health announced on Jan. 21 that he was thefirst confirmed case of the coronavirus in the U.S.

“There is uncertainty about when exactly the virus was first introduced into the U.S.,” Spitters said. “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.”

But Spitters said it's also not certain the two people actually had the coronavirus in December. The symptoms they had “overlap greatly with other respiratory tract infections,” and they could have then later contracted a mild or asymptomatic case of COVID-19 that then showed up in the serological test.

Spitters said that looking back at the earliest cases is of scientific interest, but that he and other public health officials have to focus on preventing the spread of the virus now.

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In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.