The Bulletin

Virginia’s first two cases of COVID-19 linked to international travel

By: - March 8, 2020 3:14 pm

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has activated its Emergency Operations Center to coordinate with the World Health Organization, federal, state and local public health partners, and clinicians in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak. (CDC Public Health Image Library)

Health experts in Fairfax County are releasing few details on the state’s first two presumed positive cases of novel coronavirus.

But they did tell Virginians that the risk to the general population is “extremely low” in a news conference that left several questions unanswered, including the name of the cruise line on which the second patient — a Fairfax City man in his 80s — traveled before showing symptoms of the illness in late February.

Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, an epidemiologist with the Fairfax County Health Department, said the patient traveled on a different ship than three Maryland residents who were the first patients in that state to test positive for COVID-19. On Saturday, Egypt announced 45 cases of the virus on another cruise ship that had traveled between the southern Egyptian cities of Aswan and Luxor. 

Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia all reported their first cases of the disease within the last week. Schwartz said the state and county would release few details on the Virginia patients in order to protect their privacy.

“I would like the public to know that no additional precautions are recommended at this time,” he said in a news conference Sunday, “beyond the simple precautionary measures that everyone should always take to prevent the spread of influenza and other respiratory illness.”

Officials rushed to schedule the briefing after the state reported its first positive test result late on Saturday. The first patient, a U.S. Marine stationed at Fort Belvoir, tested positive for the virus at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda after returning from official business overseas. The Fairfax City resident was hospitalized on March 5 with fever, cough and shortness of breath and was screened at Virginia’s state laboratory in Richmond after testing negative for the flu, Schwartz said.

The second patient remains hospitalized in stable condition.

Virginia’s Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services announced it was able to perform its own coronavirus testing in late March after weeks of delay. Testing capabilities at health departments across the country were initially limited after kits developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention malfunctioned, falsely flagging the presence of other viruses in many samples.

At a briefing last week, state epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake said DCLS could deliver test results within one or two days — a significant reduction from the three days to a week it took to receive results from the CDC. But Virginia is continuing to rely on the federal agency to confirm its first two positives. During Sunday’s briefing, Peake said the state sent both results for further testing at the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta. 

“Both cases had traveled internationally days before developing symptoms,” she added. “The two cases are not related.”

The state is still investigating how far the virus may have spread. Schwartz said both patients were believed to have “limited” exposure to the general public since their return home, but health officials are still examining possible contacts with other people.

DLCS lab director Denise Toney said the state currently had the capacity to test between 300 and 400 people depending on the number of samples taken from each patient. The state has tested a total of 44 people, with six results still pending, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.