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The coronavirus may have been in California before China announced the outbreak, the study suggests

The novel coronavirus may have circulated in Southern California as early as December, suggests a new UCLA study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

After analyzing electronic health records from UCLA Health hospitals and clinics, the researchers found that as of the week of December 22, hospitals began reporting abnormally high numbers of patients who had cough and acute respiratory failure compared to previous years. For reference, the Chinese government first informed the World Health Organization of the new disease on December 31.

“For many diseases, outpatient data can provide early warning to emergency wards and hospital intensive care units of what is to come,” said Dr Joann Elmore, lead author of the study. “Most COVID-19 studies evaluate hospitalization data, but we’ve also looked at the larger outpatient facility, where most patients seek medical care first when illness and symptoms arise.”

Researchers compared health system and patient visit records from December 1, 2019 to February 29, 2020 with previous years and found that outpatient visits for those seeking cough treatment increased by over 50%. The number of patient visits reporting cough exceeded the average number of similar visits in the previous five years by more than 1,000.

COVID-19 diagnostic tests were scarce during the winter months, which limits the study’s findings.

“We may never really know if these excess patients represented early, undetected cases of COVID-19 in our area,” Elmore said. “But the lessons learned from this pandemic, coupled with health analyzes that enable real-time surveillance of diseases and symptoms, can potentially help us identify and monitor emerging outbreaks and future epidemics.”

A timeline compiled by Axios shows that China had evidence that something was going on in the weeks leading up to the official reporting of the virus to WHO.

Eric Ting is an SFGATE reporter. Email: eric.ting@sfgate.com | Twitter:@_ericting

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