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Doctors: First suspected COVID-19 case occurred earlier than first thought

Dr. Adam J. Singer, of Stony Brook's Renaissance

Dr. Adam J. Singer, of Stony Brook's Renaissance School of Medicine, said it's not surprising that there was a suspected case of COVID-19 at Stony Brook earlier than first believed because flu-like symptoms are not unusual. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Doctors at Stony Brook University Hospital reported their first suspected COVID-19 case on Feb. 7, a month before Long Island’s first confirmed cases.

“It is clear that there probably was community spread earlier than we thought all over the world, ” said Dr. Adam J. Singer, vice chairman for research of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stony Brook’s Renaissance School of Medicine.

Singer reported the case in the New England Journal of Medicine.

On Tuesday, officials in Santa Clara, Calif., reported that their first deaths from the virus occurred on Feb. 6, shifting the timeline of the virus’ silent spread through the population.

Other cities are investigating what they believe were earlier outbreaks, at a time when the virus was viewed as a remote threat.

“The presence of the virus was there long before cases were identified and spread,” Singer said.

The first confirmed case on Long Island was dated March 5 and involved a 42-year-old Uniondale man. The first confirmed case in Suffolk County was dated March 8.

The unidentified Stony Brook patient, reported on Feb. 7, had respiratory symptoms and had traveled to China, an original epicenter of the disease.

Although Singer said he could not comment specifically on the patient, he said patients were told to go home and isolate themselves in the early days of the pandemic.

“This whole issue of COVID-19 is a moving target,” he said. “It is constantly evolving.”

At the time, he said, health authorities were not testing for the coronavirus and Centers for Disease Control guidelines called for hospitals to report such cases to the local health department.

The Suffolk County Department of Health Services and Commissioner Gregson Pigott did not respond to requests for comment.

Singer said it was not surprising that there was a suspected case of COVID-19 at Stony Brook earlier than first believed because flu-like symptoms are not unusual.

“I think that with all new emerging infections it takes time to figure out what is going on,” Singer said. “Unlike Ebola which is extremely deadly and hard to miss, with COVID many patients have only mild disease or are even asymptomatic, making it very difficult to identify until the numbers are very high and you begin to see severe cases.”

As of April 22, there were 30,606  confirmed cases in Suffolk and 32,765 confirmed cases in Nassau, among the highest numbers in the state. Only Queens, Bronx and King counties had more cases.

The fact that Stony Brook physicians reported a suspected COVID-19 case as early as Feb. 7 is not significant in terms of the medical treatment given to patients today, Singer said.

“I don’t think it makes any difference as to how we should act now and how we should move forward,” he said.


March 1 — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo confirms the first case in the state of New York, a Manhattan woman in her 30s, a health-care worker who had recently traveled to Iran.

March 5 — The first confirmed COVID case is reported in Nassau County.

March 7 — With 88 confirmed cases, the governor declares a state of emergency.

March 8 — The first confirmed COVID case is reported in Suffolk County.

March 12 — Suffolk County declares a State of Emergency, and Cuomo bans nursing home visits.

March 13 — Nassau County declares a State of Emergency.

March 14 — Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone orders Jake’s 58 to close.

March 15 — Long Island hospitals postpone elective surgeries; Suffolk County reports its first deaths from the virus.

March 16 — Cuomo issues an executive order, closing schools statewide.

March 17 — Long Island's first coronavirus drive-through testing site opens at Jones Beach; and Nassau County reports its first death from the coronavirus.

March 20 — Cuomo orders all nonessential businesses to close as of March 24.

March 28 — The Centers for Disease Control issues travel advisory for NY region, urging residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to “refrain from nonessential domestic travel for 14 days effective immediately.” The advisory did not apply to workers in critical infrastructure industries.

Source: Newsday library