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By Carol Stiffler

A mystery illness swept through the community in December, January, and February, some people are wondering if it was coronavirus.

The illness was viral, not bacterial, and residents said it attacked the lungs, pharynx, and sometimes sinuses. It caused prolonged coughing and local doctors found it generally undiagnosable, other than to state that it was a virus.

As we better understand the coronavirus pandemic, reports are coming out that it had left Wuhan, China, long before we first thought. In France, one hospital re-tested old pneumonia tests and found they’d unknowingly treated a man with coronavirus in December, nearly a month before the French government confirmed its first known case.

An article in Business Insider says evidence suggests the U.S. probably had coronavirus in Florida and New York first, but the nation’s first known case surfaced near Seattle on January 21, 2020.

But here in Newberry, it’s doubtful we had coronavirus at that time, according to Dr. Michael Beaulieu, chief medical officer for Helen Newberry Joy Hospital.

“I’ve done a lot of research on that, and it’s extremely unlikely,” Beaulieu said. “We’re able to track the age or time of arrival of the virus by looking at the mutations that occur in the virus. The research is constantly being updated. As of right now, it looks like probably the very earliest the virus arrived in the U.S. was middle to late January.”

Wondering if you’ve had coronavirus is a common question. Beaulieu says he’s been contacted by acquaintances from across the country who described their winter symptoms and asked if it could have been coronavirus.

“On one hand, I could see where we’d all like that to be the case,” he said. “Especially if it gives us some immunity. But unfortunately, it looks like it was just a really bad cold.”

Immunity to the virus is not guaranteed even after someone does have the virus. Researchers are working quickly to determine if any immunity is present – and for how long – after a person recovers from the virus.

Antibody tests are available at Helen Newberry Joy Hospital but require a physician’s order at this time. If you think you should take an antibody test, Beaulieu recommends talking to your physician to see if one should be ordered for you.

A limited number of antibody tests have been performed locally on people who were sick in December and January, Beaulieu said, and none of them have tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies.

The antibody test costs between $100 and $120, and though it should be covered by insurance, Beaulieu cannot guarantee it will be covered.

Relief from coronavirus will eventually come, he said, though he does not expect it will ever fully disappear.

“I think coronavirus is something that at the very least is something we will talk about seasonally, like influenza,” he said. “At some point we’ll develop treatments. Now we keep an eye on you, give you fluids and oxygen. At some point we can say ‘If you test positive, here’s a medicine that helps you get better faster.’”

Beaulieu says our best prevention at this time is social distancing, and acknowledges that experts are learning more about the virus each day. There are basically 50 experiments going on across the country, he said, as each state is doing its own thing to control the virus and salvage its economy.

Some things may never return to normal. Shaking hands might be a tradition we abandon, he said.

“I think one day it will be like the seatbelt,” Beaulieu said, referring to society’s overwhelming acceptance of learning to buckle up. “One day we will forget that we miss it.”