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Ciara O'Rourke
By Ciara O'Rourke March 16, 2020

No evidence Americans were infected with COVID-19 in the fall

If Your Time is short

  • The first confirmed COVID-19 case in the United States was reported on Jan. 20, 2020. The patient was a man who had recently returned to Washington state from Wuhan, China. 
  • The first reported case of COVID-19 in the world was from Wuhan on Dec. 31, 2019. 
  • "It is very unlikely we had cases in November or December, given what we know about the course of the disease and its later symptoms," one expert said.

U.S. cities and states are increasingly taking action to stem the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. On social media, however, some users are sharing theories that COVID-19 has been infecting people in the United States since the fall. 

"I remember my family and a lot of you being sick for 2-4 weeks with unknown strain of flu with the same symptoms as covid-19," said one Facebook post. "Now that a team of doctors have been able to identify/diagnose what it is and name it suddenly it’s a big deal. NEWS FLASH!!!! Half of you idiots already had it and got over it!!"

"U.S. authorities only just started testing for it, and even now testing is severely limited, so in all likelihood, many have had or do have it, and it’s gotten passed off as just a typical cold — because (AHEM, NEWSFLASH) it IS just a bad cold for the vast majority of people who get it" another post said. "The normal cold and flus that we’ve already been dealing with kill thousands every season — it just doesn’t get talked about because it’s nothing new and the media can’t use it to panic us at this point." 

There’s no evidence that either of these posts are accurate. Both posts, which have been shared nearly 100,000 times combined, were flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) 

Here’s what you need to know about the history of the COVID-19. 

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses including the common cold and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV), according to the World Health Organization. And they’re zoonotic, which means that they are transmitted between animals and humans. Vincent Racaniello, a professor microbiology and immunology at Columbia University, has said that the likely, distant source of COVID-19 is bats, "but we don’t know who was between bats and people." It could be a direct infection between bats and humans.

COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus that was discovered in 2019. It hadn’t previously been identified in humans. As of March 16, 164,837 cases have been confirmed in 146 countries, and 6,470 people have died, according to WHO. In the United States, there are 1,678 confirmed cases.

The first COVID-19 case was reported to the World Health Organization from Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31, 2019. On March 13, though, the South China Morning Post reported on unpublished Chinese government data indicating that the earliest case was Nov. 17, 2019, according to the Guardian.  

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Richard Watanabe, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, told PolitiFact that there’s at least evidence that there were four cases in China from earlier in December than the first reported case in Wuhan on Dec. 31. And since it’s a new virus and the early symptoms are similar to the flu, it’s possible cases existed in China even earlier than that, he said. 

"However," he said, "in the U.S., it is very unlikely we had cases in November or December, given what we know about the course of the disease and its later symptoms. The first cases in the U.S. were, in fact, travelers that brought the virus from China or other countries."

Vox recently reported that an analysis of the coronavirus’ genome by Tanja Stadler, a professor of computational biology at ETH Zurich and a molecular epidemiology expert, found that the virus emerged in humans in China in the first half of November 2019.

"The widespread hypothesis that the first person was infected at an animal market in November is still plausible," Stadler said in a statement. "Our data effectively rule out the scenario that the virus circulated in humans for a long time before that." 

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States was reported on Jan. 20. The patient, a 35-year-old man, had had a cough and fever for four days when he went to an urgent care clinic in Snohomish County, Washington, on Jan. 19. He had recently returned to Washington state from Wuhan, China, on Jan. 15. The source of his infection is unknown, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.  

We’ve already debunked claims that the new coronavirus is "simply the common cold." These Facebook posts make unsubstantiated claims that many people have been infected and recovered from COVID-19 well before the first cases were documented in the United States and even China. 

There’s a lot we still don’t know about the disease. But current evidence indicates that COVID-19 originated in China in November and has since spread around the world. 

We rate these posts False.

Correction, March 19, 2020: An earlier version of this post had an incorrect date for when the first COVID-19 case was reported to the World Health Organization from Wuhan, China. The story has been updated.


Our Sources

Facebook post, March 12, 2020

Facebook post, March 13, 2020

The New York Times, Coronavirus in N.Y.: New York City public schools to close, March 15, 2020

Eater Los Angeles, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti will soon order citywide lockdown of bars and dine-in restaurants, March 15, 2020

World Health Organization, Coronavirus, visited March 16, 2020

World Health Organization, Novel coronavirus (COVID-19) situation, visited March 16, 2020

World Health Organization, Rolling updates on coronavirus disease (COVID-19), updated March 11, 2020

The Guardian, First Covid-19 case happened in November, China government records show - report, March 13, 2020

Vox, The conspiracy theories about the origins of the coronavirus, debunked, March 12, 2020

ETH Zurich, Calculating the beginnings of the coronavirus epidemic, March 2, 2020

New England Journal of Medicine, First case of 2019 novel coronavirus in the United States, March 5, 2020

Interview with Richard Watanabe, professor of preventive medicine, University of Southern California, March 16, 2020

Interview with Myron Cohen, associated vice chancellor for global health and medical affairs, University of North Carolina School of Medicine, March 16, 2020


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No evidence Americans were infected with COVID-19 in the fall

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