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Was coronavirus at Sundance? Those who got sick at the film festival think it’s possible

Sundance Film Festival attendees mill around the Eccles Theatre in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.
Sundance Film Festival attendees mill around the Eccles Theatre in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

PARK CITY — Like most people at Sundance, Pete Sands was too busy to pay too much attention to rumors about people being sick.

But in retrospect, he believes it’s “highly possible” that the new coronavirus caused an outbreak of COVID-19 during the 11-day international film festival.

“I was there with my nieces, and that last night of our lounge, I got super sick,” said Sands, an actor, musician and now public relations specialist for Utah Navajo Health Systems. “It was just for a night. But I heard about others who’d gotten sick from other lounge (managers). I remember kind of whispers about it, and (seeing reports) on TV, but I don’t think there were cases in the U.S. That was important.”

He said it wasn’t until after hearing that friends had been sick that he began to wonder if it had been COVID-19.

“One of my nieces said, ‘Maybe there were people there who had it because they were coming from other countries,’” said Sands. “I didn’t think about it at the time.”

The possibility of an outbreak at the Sundance Film Festival was raised by a story in the Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday. The story details a number of incidents where attendees suffered symptoms that mirror what health officials list as COVID-19 symptoms, including cough, shortness of breath, fever, body aches and lethargy.

Utah Department of Health epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn addressed the possibility in Wednesday’s news conference.

“It was definitely at the beginning of this outbreak,” Dunn said. “We set up screening and education. At that point, I don’t think we’d had any cases. Those measures were put in place. I agree, it’s definitely a possibility that COVID-19 was circulating at Sundance.”

Dunn didn’t see much value in trying to determine whether or not those cases were, in fact, COVID-19.

“There are not a lot of interventions that would be useful to public health at this point,” she said, although she did recommend those with symptoms that mirrored COVID-19 symptoms talk with a health care provider about whether or not they should be tested for antibodies.

There was, in fact, a documented case of COVID-19 in the U.S. when Sundance began.

Washington confirmed the country’s first case on Jan. 21, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The patient was a man who was returning to the U.S. after traveling to Wuhan, China, the city where it’s believed the outbreak began. On Jan. 23, the Chinese government locked down the city of Wuhan, and that same day in Park City, the Sundance Film Festival opened.

Sands, who grew up in Montezuma Creek on the Navajo Nation, was part of the first-ever Indigenous Filmmakers Lounge at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City in January. The lounge was open Jan. 24-25, which was the first weekend of the festival that screened 118 feature films over 10 days. It’s estimated 120,000 people attend the annual festival that offers movies from 27 countries.

Summit County’s first three cases were visitors on March 10. Three days later, Summit County announced it had the state’s first case of community spread, where a patient contracts the virus with no known exposure.

Summit County Health Director Richard Bullough did not respond to calls or emails from the Deseret News, nor did Derek Siddoway, the health department’s communication and public engagement director.

The Sundance Festival issued a statement in the Hollywood Reporter article saying, “We’re sorry to hear that any of our festival attendees were unwell either during or after our January edition. We are not aware of any confirmed festival-connected cases of COVID-19.”

In the article, regular festival goers said there is almost always illness that accompanies the event as it features “frigid temperatures, late-night partying and all that handshaking, in which everyone becomes an unknowing vector for spreading germs.” But as the author talked to a wide range of those who got sick this year, it seemed the malaise was more widespread and more serious, causing some to assert that it might have been COVID-19.

One of those interviewed was 20-year-old actress Ashley Jackson, who flew home to Atlanta after attending the festival and becoming sick.

“I started texting other people who had been at Sundance, and one said, ‘Yo, we just started calling it the Sundance Plague on social media,’“ says Jackson. “We all had the same symptoms, all had the cough, all had trouble breathing at night. Some of us got humidifiers and some got oxygen. And we were all just miserable for three to four weeks. And then out of nowhere, we’re back living in society like nothing is wrong. And then I see all these coronavirus stories, and I was like, ‘Whoa.’”

Dean Hart, a microbiologist and expert in virus transmission interviewed by the Hollywood Reporter, and said the timing for an outbreak at Sundance was right.

“Logic dictates that they most probably did have it,” says Hart of the presentation of symptoms. “With Sundance, you’ve got the perfect formula for this virus to really go to town and contaminate everybody.”

Sands isn’t convinced he had COVID-19, but he knew of enough people who got sick at the festival that he thinks it is possible it was the virus that is now ravaging his own Navajo Nation. Three months after helping to host that inaugural Indigenous Filmmakers Lounge, he is leading the COVID-19 relief effort on the reservation in southeast Utah.

On April 27, Dunn said some of the antibody testing will be aimed at trying to understand just how early the virus made its way to Utah. Officially, Utah’s first case was documented on March 6 in Davis County. The man had recently returned home from a cruise.

“We’re going to be working with hospital systems, and Intermountain (Healthcare) is already doing this by going back in time and looking at those people who tested negative for influenza and retesting their samples for COVID-19 or reaching out to those individuals to get an antibody test so we can identify more accurately when it did come into Utah and what the spread has been,” Dunn said at that daily press briefing.