My friend Jamie thinks he might have picked up a mild to moderate case of COVID-19 while traveling in Japan shortly before Christmas.
When he returned home, he had a cough, fever and headaches. His doctor suspected the flu, but the test came back negative. It was only later, when news coverage of the virus began increasing, that Jamie began wondering whether his flu-like illness was actually COVID-19.
“Once the antibody test is widely available, I’ll take it to know for certain,” he said.
I initially dismissed Jamie’s story, because his sickness occurred well before the first official case of COVID-19 in the U.S.
But that timeline has shifted: New autopsy results show that two Californians died of COVID-19 in early and mid-February, several weeks before what was previously considered the first coronavirus death in the U.S.
“We really need to now go back, look at a lot more cases from January – even December – and try to sort out when did we first really encounter this virus in the United States,” Dr. Ashish K. Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told CNN.
There’s a lot we don’t know about COVID-19, as this revised timeline makes clear.
Some of the most basic questions about the virus — when did it arrive in the U.S.? what percentage of the population has had it? how lethal is it? — have yet to be answered with any certainty.
This lack of clarity is fueling debates and disagreements over our collective response to COVID-19. Most of the discussion is healthy – a good-faith effort to examine and interpret emerging evidence as it arises. But there’s another strain of coronavirus-related discussion, and it’s steeped in an unhealthy certainty.
The reality is that we’re learning new things about this virus every day, and open-mindedness is critical. It’s entirely possible that some of our early assumptions will be proven wrong, while new ideas gain currency.
And that’s OK.
Take the role children play in spreading COVID-19.
Very few children have died of COVID-19, and only a small percentage have developed serious illnesses as a result of the virus. The big concern, as I’ve understood it, has always been that children will contract the disease and spread it to vulnerable adults.
But intriguing new research suggests that might not be the case.
A study published this month in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that a nine-year old who contracted the virus did not pass it on to the 170-plus people he later came into contact with, including two siblings. “Children might not be an important source of transmissions of this novel virus,” the researchers wrote.
Now, this is just one study – I’m not suggesting we reopen all schools tomorrow because of a nine-year-old boy in France.
What I’d like to see are more studies in this vein. We know very little about children and COVID-19 transmission, and additional studies might help us better understand the risks of re-opening schools and playgrounds.
Another area where there’s a lot of uncertainty: the recent and well-publicized studies of antibody tests out of Santa Clara, California, and Los Angeles.
These studies suggest that COVID-19 has infected far more people than originally believed – an encouraging finding that, if true, suggests the virus is less deadly than previously thought.
Unfortunately, a number of public health experts have already called the research into question, making it hard to know whether the studies are to be believed.
Settling the question requires more data – a lot more data. Much as we’d all like to believe that COVID-19 isn’t all that dangerous, leaping to that conclusion based on two antibody studies would be premature, even risky.
Until we know more – and by more, I mean a lot more – it makes sense to approach reopening the economy and resuming activity with an abundance of caution.
This isn’t to say some restrictions can’t be lifted.
Allowing upstate New York hospitals to do elective surgeries again is a good decision, to name one example. But we need to be careful, and base our policies in the best research available
Much as I’d like to take my son to the playground, I’m willing to wait until we better understand the risks to do so. I’m happy to wear a mask in crowded spaces as long as experts say it’s necessary, and limit trips to the grocery store.
COVID-19 is less than six months old, and our insight is extremely limited.
Someday we’ll have the answers we’re looking for.
Right now, though, we’re mostly in the dark.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.