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Researchers say coronavirus likely spread silently in Washington for weeks

More details emerge regarding coronavirus in Washington state. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, may have been spreading in Washington state for weeks undetected, according to researchers at the Seattle Flu Study.

1 more death, 3 new cases of coronavirus reported in King County

Hours after a press conference Saturday announcing new cases of the virus in King County, including the first U.S. death, researchers took to Twitter to reveal results of a genome analysis. The analysis strongly suggested the case of the virus confirmed Friday in a Snohomish County teen from Jackson High School descended from the county’s only other confirmed case – the first U.S. case – way back in mid-January.

Trevor Bedford, an associate professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington who was one of the scientists who analyzed the sequence. He continued to explain that while there was a slight chance the two cases were unrelated, it was highly unlikely, given that both appeared to have a rare genetic variation found in just 2 of 59 samples provided from cases in China, according to a New York Times report.

The teen’s case identified close to six weeks after the original case, and the too were not known to have had any contact. That was well past the time the first case should have been contagious.

That being so, Bedford and other researchers believe the virus has likely been spreading through the community undetected for close to six weeks. Researchers estimate that could mean anywhere from 150 to 1,500 people have been infected here, with the most likely number being between 300 and 500.

The Snohomish County Health District (SCHD) says it’s possible.

“The Snohomish Health District is aware of the preliminary findings released by the Seattle Flu Study, suggesting that coronavirus has been spreading for close to six weeks. We are still evaluating the findings with our state and local partners and coordinating on next steps,” SCHD’s Heather Thomas said in a statement to KIRO Radio.

Renton high school closed Monday after flu-like symptoms emerge

“It’s important to remember that national testing capabilities have only been available for about six weeks. Here in Washington, we’ve only had the ability to test locally for a few days. It is definitely possible that COVID-19 has been circulating, with people experiencing mild symptoms just like the flu,” she added.

Health officials say it is no reason to panic, and urge anyone with symptoms to call their primary care doctor, who can determine if you should be tested for the virus and coordinate that testing with health officials should it be necessary.

Anyone with symptoms should call their doctor first, not just show up or go to the ER. Only health care providers, school nurses, and others in the medical field should call the Health District or other public health officials, according to Thomas.

For everyone else, Thomas says the best course of actions remains being vigilant about prevention, such as frequent hand-washing, avoiding touching your face, and covering your mouth if you sneeze or cough.

Health officials also remind people a large percentage of coronavirus cases are very mild (around 80%), with fever and cough. A small percentage are more severe and involve pneumonia-like symptoms, particularly in the elderley and people with underlying medical conditions.

In the meantime, the Snohomish County Health District says a special hour-long Board of Health meeting has been called for Monday night at 5 p.m. for a briefing on the coronavirus. The meeting will be live-streamed on the health district’s Facebook page here.

You can learn more about prevention and keep up with the latest on the coronavirus at the links below:

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