PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Although the first confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States were identified in January, a new study published Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found people may have first been infected in December.
The first known case of coronavirus was detected in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. But in the United States, the first infection – a man in Washington state – wasn’t reported until the following month.
The first person who tested positive for the virus in Rhode Island was a man in his mid-40s on March 1. On that same day, two more cases were found.
All three of those individuals had gone on a trip to Europe in mid-February organized by St. Raphael’s Academy, a Catholic school in Pawtucket. The trip included a stop in Italy, which was seeing a major outbreak of the virus at the time.
The CDC’s study now suggests the virus may have been here earlier than that.
To determine if COVID-19 antibodies were around before the first identified case, scientists archived samples from 7,389 blood donations collected by the American Red Cross.
The blood came from donors who lived in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, Iowa, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin.
In analyzing the samples, the CDC scientists found antibodies in 39 samples from California, Oregon, and Washington state collected between Dec. 13 and Dec. 16, along with 67 samples with antibodies in Massachusetts, Michigan, Wisconsin or Iowa, and Connecticut or Rhode Island, collected between Dec. 30 and Jan. 17.
That means that COVID-19 could have actually been in Southern New England as early as the end of December 2019.
The study also found “detection of reactive antibodies” in the specimens tested, indicating that the virus may have been around in the United States even earlier.
Additional studies are needed to determine if these findings in mid-December were “true positives.”