Possible early COVID-19 cases discovered by antibody testing

Lauren Good reporter

Before COVID-19, people were most concerned with the winter’s annual cold and flu season. Richard Morgan, a Portage county local and art teacher at Crestwood Middle School, was no stranger to the occasional seasonal cold. 

“I’ve worked in education for over 15 years now,” Morgan said, “I was used to the yearly routine, you get a flu shot in September and prepare yourself to get a little cold or flu bug during the winter but this year was so different for my family.” 

According to the World Health Organization, the first mention of COVID-19 in the media was on December 31, 2019. At the time, Wuhan, China reported a few cases of “pneumonia”, which would later be identified as the novel Coronavirus, but no deaths were reported and the illness did not appear to be spreading. By January 13, 2020, the first case of Coronavirus outside of China appeared in Thailand and discussion about COVID-19 quickly spread worldwide. 

Morgan was on winter break from teaching in Dec. 2019, and was preparing lesson plans to return to class after New Year’s, just as he had done for over 15 years. During the last week of December, he fell ill with intense upper respiratory symptoms. 

His wife, Denise Morgan, noticed her husband’s symptoms were much more intense than that of the average cold. 

“After the holidays, I was cleaning the house and catching up on chores and Richard was nowhere to be found,” Denise said, “I remember finding him curled up in our bed and starting to worry after day three or four. This is not my husband, I thought. Richard is so active, I had only ever seen him sick a few times.” 

After four days of intense illness, Denise took him to University Hospital Medical Center to be seen for treatment. 

“I was seen in the emergency room by doctors and nurses and given a flu test,” Richard said, “When the flu test came back negative, I was shocked. I had never felt that sick in my life. I truly felt like I was battling death, but the doctors assured me I’d be fine and sent me home with a few medications.” 

After two weeks of symptoms, Richard began to recover and return to normal life. But when the news of coronavirus in the United States began to break in late January, Denise and Richard wondered if he had been battling COVID-19 a month earlier. 

“It was hard not to ask myself if Coronavirus was the mysterious illness I had battled not even a month before the news broke,” Morgan said, “I know my body and I know myself and whatever affected me in December was a sickness I’ve never experienced in my life.” 

As it turned out, the Morgan’s weren’t the only ones with concerns about early exposure to Coronavirus. Major news organizations like The New York Times, The Atlantic and more began reporting that a small group of American’s had fallen severely ill in late winter and believed that they had early forms of the Coronavirus. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement online on June 5 stating that “four separate lines of evidence suggest that limited U.S. community transmission likely began in late January or early February 2020, after a single importation from China, followed by multiple importations from Europe.” In other words, Coronavirus was in the United States earlier than originally indicated, and there might be some truth to the concerns of those who believe that they had the Coronavirus in January. 

Locally, antibody testing has recently become available at select laboratories to indicate if someone had the COVID-19 virus in their body at one point. However, the antibody tests do not specifically indicate when someone had COVID-19, leaving families like the Morgan’s wondering if they were unknowingly exposed to Coronavirus months ago. 

“I still wonder if I beat COVID-19 and never knew it”, Richard said, “with antibody testing now, I’m strongly considering getting myself tested for antibodies.” 

In Northeast Ohio, antibody testing is now available for free at Vitalant Blood Bank locations in Middleburg Heights, Canton and Elyria with the donation of blood. Other locations such as Wooster Hospital, QuestLabs and LabCorp locations in Canton are now providing antibody tests for a fee.

Contact Lauren Good at [email protected].