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UW Virology: We may never know who had first COVID-19 case in WA

Workers at UW Medicine's drive-through testing center in Seattle. (Getty Images)

The first COVID-19 case in Washington was originally thought to have occurred in late January. Now, though, researchers are uncertain whether they’ll ever know when the virus actually arrived.

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“I don’t think we’re ever going to know the exact person who was the first one,” UW Virology head Dr. Keith Jerome told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross.

That’s largely driven by a lack of proper surveillance early on in the pandemic, which has left state health officials without the necessary data and infrastructure to be able to trace the virus’ early presence in Washington.

“This goes back to the issues in public health and surveillance, and I think we’ve under-invested in that,” Dr. Jerome noted.

Logistically, he pushed for having clinical labs forward samples on to state labs when they’re uncertain of a diagnosis.

Because clinical labs are under pressure to “be efficient stewards of the health care dollar,” it makes it that much more important to ensure that the state has the tools it needs to fill in those gaps.

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“It’s why we have public health,” Jerome described. “What I mean is that somebody takes a look at these things and says, ‘gosh, we’re having unexplained respiratory illnesses — could this be something new that we need to be worried about?’ We just didn’t do that to the level we needed to in this case.”

Looking back on the early days of the COVID-19 crisis in Washington, he points out that better surveillance could have given health officials more time to deal with the virus before it was widespread.

“I think it says we did have more time to catch this and we didn’t,” he opined.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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