Antibody testing places earliest Ohio coronavirus case in early January

Antibody testing places earliest Ohio coronavirus case in early January
Ohio is now counting positive COVID-19 antibody tests as "probable" cases. (Source: (Photo: Amanda Rossmann, The Enquirer/Amanda Rossmann))

CINCINNATI - The earliest coronavirus cases in Ohio now date back to January, indicating COVID-19 might have been in the state and spreading here earlier than initially thought.

According to our media partners at the Cincinnati Enquirer, people have reported feeling ill in January – as early as Jan. 7 – according to Ohio Department of Health data released Sunday. Few details about the patients were available Monday.

A department spokeswoman couldn’t say Monday whether those people had traveled, were connected to another case or were infected through virus spread in the community. The patients were from Miami, Montgomery, Richland, Summit and Warren counties.

The earliest was a woman in her 70s from Miami County who said she first felt sick Jan. 7. Miami County health officials did not immediately return a phone call Tuesday seeking more information about the patient.

They were identified through antibody tests and COVID-19 symptoms, said Ohio Department of Health spokeswoman Melanie Amato. That means they are considered “probable” cases, confirmed without a polymerase chain reaction test.

Probable, not confirmed

Amato said at least two of the patients traveled outside of Ohio but it's not known whether that was a factor. And there's no way to know whether these patients were asymptomatic and felt sick from the flu or a cold.

COVID-19 symptoms appear two to 14 days after infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has confirmed several symptoms: cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fever, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and new loss of taste or smell.

"These cases were found through antibody testing and therefore a lot of it is going off of memory for the person who was sick," Amato said in an email. "They will also always remain under probable cases."

As of Monday, Ohio had 23,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,377 probable cases.

Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton said disease detectives are examining the cases to see if they were associated with travel.

“We are going to learn more and more about this disease, how long it was here in Ohio, how long it was spreading as we do more and more testing,” Acton said Monday.

Antibody tests look back

Acton and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced the state's first test-confirmed cases of COVID-19 – three – on March 9. Those people had contracted the virus while traveling out of state.

On the same day they made that announcement, 262 people had already fallen ill, according to the latest reported cases. But those numbers wouldn't be known for several weeks or months.

That tally could grow as more Ohioans get antibody tests. Positive antibody tests are immediately reported to the state.

Ohio has had a shortage of tests that detect active infection throughout the pandemic. The state's first working test kits didn't arrive until March 5. Tests have been prioritized for specific populations of Ohioans, including health care workers, residents and staff at nursing homes and other congregate settings and people with underlying health conditions.

That's why Acton and local health officials have cautioned Ohio's case numbers are the tip of the iceberg of the virus' prevalence in the state.

Blood tests can detect the presence of COVID-19 antibodies. Doctors and researchers are cautiously optimistic: some test kits have produced high false-positive rates.