As we come to realize how pervasive coronavirus has been, many of us have begun to suspect that the virus had darkened our doorstep long before we became aware of it. Even I, in the suburbs and festooned with delivery apps, started to think I could have had it before March. Turns out (after an antibody test) that I didn’t, but some folks in California claiming their early 2020 cough was COVID-19 might have been right. Recent research suggests that COVID-19 may have gotten to Los Angeles as early as December of 2019. If true, coronavirus was living its Hollywood dream before the World Health Organization was even privy to the cases in Wuhan, China.
But look, before your mind starts to go there: Not everyone’s terrible winter cold or bad taco pukes was actually coronavirus. It would, however, be wild if LA was the origin of the virus. This pandemic is truly providing us with more twists than a writer’s room in Studio City. It truly feels like COVID-19 is taunting us at this point.
Published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, the study details findings from medical records from UCLA hospitals and clinics at the turn of last year. There, they saw that there was a significant increase in patients with coughs and acute respiratory failure last winter. The team of analysts combed UCLA Health hospitals and clinic records beginning in late December 2019, which suggests that COVID-19 may have been circulating in California months before the first definitive cases in the U.S. were identified.
The uptick of these symptoms in LA at the end of 2019 is not a small one; the study noted a 50% increase — adding that there was no similar spike in each of the previous five years. That increase continued through February 2020, which was just about the time every American office worker cluelessly said, “see you in a month or so” to their coworkers.
It’s important to note that researchers studied records where the attending physician or medical worker noted a “cough” or “respiratory failure” so not every person noted had the same illness, even if all signs point toward coronavirus. Some of these patients with classic coronavirus symptoms likely had the seasonal flu, which was in full effect early last year. It’s also possible, as the Los Angeles Times noted, that the vape-related respiratory illness in 2019 contributed to inflated case numbers.
Now that our utter lack of pandemic prep have been exposed, health organizations and agencies are attempting to better predict and monitor cases. Analyzing electronic patient records could help health authorities more effectively identify and control outbreaks like the current pandemic. It is heartening to know that if we have another pandemic, or enter a “pandemic age” (ah, delightful), there may be no widespread catastrophe that a certain president to coin a racist nickname for or attempt to cover up like a puppy with a bag of flour. Just think of how many lives could have been saved if there were systems in place, maybe by an American government that was prepared and they found this out in December.