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Los Angeles patients complained about coughs back in December, according to a new study

A new study says people complained of coughs and respiratory illnesses in Los Angeles well before the pandemic began.

In this July 14, 2020, file photo, people wait in line for coronavirus testing at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
In this July 14, 2020 file photo, people wait in line for coronavirus testing at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

Did the coronavirus start spreading in the United States before February?

A new study suggests there were a high number of patients in the Los Angeles area that complained about coughs and respiratory illnesses from late December 2019 through February, which raises questions about whether the novel coronavirus made its way stateside before the pandemic began here.

In fact, the authors of the study — published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research — suggested coronavirus infections may have caused the rise in respiratory illness complaints.

“This is consistent with the growing body of data that suggests that there’s been community spread much earlier than we had anticipated,” said study author Joann G. Elmore, a doctor and epidemiologist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles, according to The Washington Post.

  • The researchers reviewed outpatient and emergency department reports. They found the word “cough” was used several times. They then made connections between those patients and those with respiratory failure.
  • There was an uptick beginning Dec. 22 and over the next 10 weeks.
  • The number of people with these issues was 50% higher than what experts predicted.
  • “A significantly higher number of patients with respiratory complaints and diseases starting in late December 2019 and continuing through February 2020 suggests community spread of SARS-CoV-2 prior to established clinical awareness and testing capabilities,” the study said.

Early coronavirus reports

I first wrote about the novel coronavirus on Jan. 6. At the time, several health officials from China were worried about a virus that had infected dozens of people. The reports were mostly out of Wuhan, China.

  • In what seems wild now, Li Gang, director of the Wuhan Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, told Changjiang Ribao, a local newspaper in China, that there was no evidence the disease could pass from humans to humans, according to the South China Morning Post.

That said ...

But the authors said there’s no way to prove the coronavirus infected these patients beforehand. Other experts said it’s tough to prove whether there was an early arrival of the coronavirus, too, according to The Washington Post.

  • “We may never truly know if these excess patients represented early and undetected COVID-19 cases in our area,” Elmore said, according to Fox News. “But the lessons learned from this pandemic, paired with health care analytics that enable real-time surveillance of disease and symptoms, can potentially help us identify and track emerging outbreaks and future epidemics.”