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Coronavirus ‘Patient Zero’ was not Snohomish County man, health officials say

Dr. Jay Cook of Providence Regional Medical Center Everett speaks during a press conference about the first confirmed U.S. case of a virus known as the 2019 novel coronavirus at the state Public Health Laboratories on January 21, 2020 in Shoreline, Washington.

The man who was first diagnosed with coronavirus in Snohomish County should not be considered Patient Zero, health officials say.

“There have been multiple introductions into the U.S.,” said Dr. Chris Spitters with Snohomish Health District. “Molecular epidemiologic analysis has shown that there are multiple different strains of the virus.”

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According to the Centers for Disease Control, the man affected was a Snohomish County resident in his 30s who was traveling through Sea-Tac Airport after a trip to China near the Wuhan region. He was hospitalized with pneumonia in early January. The coronavirus infection was confirmed on January 20. Authorities said then that he fully cooperative with quarantine procedures since his arrival.

Spitters repeated on Friday what other health experts are saying; that the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. was not spread by a single introduction. It was likely introduced to the U.S. in several regions, Seattle being one of them.

Not only that, but it likely was introduced to the U.S. well before the first case in Snohomish County was reported.

“I think it’s reasonable to assume, given reports that the ones we’ve have and the others around the country, that introduction may have occurred prior to mid-January as we initially suspected,” Spitters said. “While that’s of scientific and academic interest, it doesn’t really change where we sit today or where we have to move ahead in the future.”

While there is uncertainty about the first cases to arrive on U.S. soil and when exactly that happened, Spitters is confident that the coronavirus strain varies from region to region, even in the United States.

“Although that strain apparently introduced in mid-January is the dominant one in this specific Northwest region, or in Washington, there are other strains that are dominant in other parts of the country,” he said.

He read a letter about an 82-year-old woman who lived in a memory care facility in Everett. She developed severe shortness of breath. She died at Harborborview Medical Center of acute respiratory failure on Feb. 22. But there was no testing done then.

“Do I think it’s possible she had coronavirus?” Spitters answered yes, and that it’s certainly likely.

There is no active effort underway for medical examiners to look back at previous deaths to determine the first coronavirus death in Snohomish County, he explained.

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“Resources are limited right now and as I said, while that is of academic and scientific interest to me, and many other people out there, I don’t think it’s really changing where the needle is on what we’re doing now and where we have to go,” Spitters said.

He said that the focus now is on suppressing transmission and navigating attempts to return to economics, social, educational, spiritual, and recreational activities that people have had to forego in recent months.

“To a great extent, we’ll still have to forego a great deal in the future as we try to balance physical, social, and economic well-being of people,” he said.

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