Daniel Deforte hadn’t had a fever in about 10 years. Admittedly, every fall, the 36-year-old Norwalk resident would get sick, but never like he did last November.
For three days, Deforte was struck with a 103-degree fever. His two boys, ages 2 and 4, and his wife, 35, also came down with the intense illness. Altogether, Deforte said the family was sick for about two months.
“We all had extremely high fevers. It was very hard for me to breathe. There was a lot of coughing. It’s taken us months to get over this coughing,” Deforte said. “My 4-year-old son actually got pneumonia from it, which is really strange. He still has a heavy cough ‘till this day.”
The family was tested for the flu, but results came back negative. Other than his son’s pneumonia, doctors found no bacterial infection.
“It just completely wiped us out,” Deforte said.
The Defortes had mostly put the illness behind them until a few months ago when the COVID-19 outbreak started to intensify here. When the first case was confirmed in Connecticut on March 8, Deforte and his family began seriously questioning whether their illness was actually the coronavirus.
The family is not alone in wondering, especially amid recent reports that two California residents died of the virus in early- to mid-February, several weeks before what was believed to be the country’s first official COVID-related death.
In Norwalk, for example, Deforte was one of more than 100 people who responded to a post on a private Facebook community group, asking if anyone suspected they had the virus in February or earlier. Many, like Deforte, believed they had it in the fall or early winter.
But, despite reports like the one out of California, epidemiologists here are somewhat skeptical that the virus could have been present in Connecticut as early as the fall and are still limited in their ability to establish a timeline of the disease locally.
‘“COVID-like’ symptoms can encompass a wide-range of symptoms with a wide-range of severities,” said Dr. Patrick Kelley, a senior scholar at the Health Studies Program at Fairfield University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Many of these symptoms can be found with other infectious diseases, including influenza, which is typically common during the months of January and February. So it would not be surprising that some folks in this area would have had ‘COVID-like’ symptoms late in 2019, but many people who have had those symptoms would likely have have conditions other than COVID-19.”
The origins of the novel coronavirus, the seventh such virus in the family of illnesses, have been somewhat hotly contested, with conspiracy theories rife that it might have been man-made in a Chinese laboratory. But experts say the virus likely spread from bats to humans in Wuhan, China, sometime in November 2019.
Kelley and Dr. Michael Parry, chairman of infectious diseases at Stamford Health, pointed to this timeline as evidence that there likely could not have been transmission into the U.S. by the fall.
“I suppose you could have had travels from that Wuhan area from mid- to late-December,” Parry said. “But common knowledge seems to be that most of the U.S. data around cases involves movement from Europe to the U.S.”
“I think December or November is very unlikely,” Parry continued. “But January or February is possible.”
Dr. Nathan Grubaugh, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, is part of a team using genome sequencing to track the virus’ mutations and determine its patterns of transmission. According to data from the team’s COVIDTracker project — which is updated weekly — early transmission to Connecticut mostly came from Washington state, while the abundance of new transmissions more recently have come from within the state, or through contact with New York.
By mapping genomes, Grubaugh’s group hopes to answer when the virus arrived in Connecticut and where the first case originated. But there are inherent difficulties to arriving at those answers.
“That’s the nature of this, there are always barriers to detecting that first case,” Grubaugh said. “Some of that is the fact that a lot of cases are asymptomatic. You’re going to have a lot of transmission happening before you have somebody going to a clinic.”
According to Kelley, it was determined retroactively that the first cases in New York appeared to have been present in late February.
“Which suggests that community-level circulation was likely for some weeks before that,” Kelley said. “(But), many of these infections would have been asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic.”
But more research is still needed and is limited by the effectiveness and availability of serological (antibody) tests, which could, in theory, provide a more accurate account of when exactly the virus might have entered the state.
“To determine the exact timeline is a challenge and partly dependent on the number and specimen date of historically available samples,” Kelley said. “Testing a significant number of representative stored samples from December, January and February might allow one to see when specific SARS-CoV-2 antibodies first appeared in the general population.”
But, even now, it’s believed only a small percentage of the population has developed COVID-19 antibodies, Kelley said. So the likelihood of a large enough sample size of cases dating back to January or February might be insufficient.
For some, like the Defortes, not knowing comes with some anxiety.
“We’ve been interested to see if it really was that, if we had antibodies,” Deforte said. But, so far, his family hasn’t been able to get tested for antibodies.
“If I was tested, I’d definitely feel more comfortable,” he said.
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