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LA Times: SARS-COV-2 may have been circulating in California long before anyone knew, possibly in late December


corona photo by mohamed Hassan courtesy of (creative commons)

The Los Angeles Times reports that Dr. Jeff Smith, chief executive of the Santa Clara County government, told county leaders in a briefing on Friday that “The virus was freewheeling in our community and probably has been here for quite some time”.  He was also quoted as saying that data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, a federal government body) indicated that the virus entered the state some time in December (presumably late December, but I’m guessing at that time frame).

Mild cases of COVID-19 closely resemble the seasonal flu and would not have attracted any attention unless a CT scan (computer-assisted tomography scan) was performed and showed an unusual “ground-glass” appearance of a lung infiltrate.  The Bay Area, of which Santa Clara County is a part, is an entry and exit site for visitors from China as well as people of Asian descent who have settled here for more than a century.  Bruce Lee, one of the most famous actors ever from Hong Kong, was born in San Francisco.

Santa Clara County, according to the LA Times report, had its first two cases “almost a week” before the federal government approved testing for the virus on February 4.  Both were returning from travel to Wuhan, a province of China.  Testing was limited to “some health departments” with restrictions limiting testing to those who were sick from, or known to be exposed to, someone already known to have COVID-19.  The Diamond Princess cruise ship was a focus of federal interest, and a passenger from that ship tested positive “five days after the ship’s January 20 departure from Japan”.  A total of 712 people from that ship had positive test results, and nine people died.  It was not until February 27 that a woman who had already been hospitalized for a week or more was tested on the insistence of her family.  By then, community spread was evident when attempts were made to track down the source of the new infections that were reported.

Research is now focusing on banked blood samples in the search for earlier cases.  This search will be for antibodies to the virus, which appear about two weeks after one falls ill.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH, another federal group) is looking at samples from blood banks in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and elsewhere across the United States.

The LA Times story also details the case of the second death in that area, a woman who fell ill in mid-February and died March 9.  She had been a stay-at-home daughter of 68, taking care of her elderly mother.  By some eerie coincidence, she was of Iranian extraction; that country has seen a severe outbreak of the virus, with many deaths.  She had not been tested until February 27, despite already being in the hospital for some days.  Her family was unable to be at her bedside when she died because everyone had been isolated in the mistaken belief that she was the only one in the family with exposure.  That cannot have been true, based on what we now know about community spread in the Bay Area.

ERROR: I stated that the case detailed was the second death in the area.  On further review of the article, I realized that it stated that the case was actually the first reported death from COVID-19 in Santa Clara County.

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