A new UCLA study shows that the number of doctor visits for cough symptoms rose in December.

Did you have a cough in December? According to a new study, you might have had coronavirus.

It's well-known that a cough is a symptom of COVID-19, and now a new study that looks at the prevalence of that symptom suggests that the virus could have been in the United States in mid- to late-December.

The study done by researchers from UCLA, published earlier this month in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, looked at data gathered from 180 clinics and three hospitals within the UCLA Health System from December 2019 through February 2020—a system that sees 2.5 million patients annually. Specifically, they looked at the number of patients who had come in for medical care because of a “cough” over those three months and compared that to the average number of visits for coughs over the five previous seasons. 

The research team found that there was an increased number of patients who visited those locations due to respiratory symptoms, exceeding the 95% prediction for that time. 

  • Per one thousand visits, researchers found two more cough related outpatient visits than usual.
  • Emergency facilities saw 19 more visits than usual per 1,000 visits.
  • 39 more hospitalizations due to acute respiratory failure than average per 1,000 hospitalizations.
  • In total, the study saw 168 excess cases in outpatient clinics, 56 in emergency departments, and 18 with acute respiratory failure.

Overall, the study concluded that there were a significantly higher number of patients with respiratory disease and complaints starting in late-December 2019 and continued through February 2020, when the study ended.

These findings suggest that there was a community spread of the novel coronavirus before established clinical awareness and testing capabilities. The study illustrates that not only was the virus possibly spreading earlier in the country than previously thought, but it also shows what a powerful tool identifying trends in patient populations and reasons for care can be when treating and tracking something like the coronavirus. 

Most of us have heard at least one friend or relative say they think they may have already gotten the virus due to having a bad cold or respiratory virus around the winter holidays and start of the year. The conclusions from this study imply that may be true for some people. It also reminds us that there is a lot more about the coronavirus than we currently know and that, as a newer disease, more work will have to be done before we can truly understand the virus and when the outbreak began. 

What do you think about these new findings? Did you or anyone close to you experience a persistent cough in the months before the virus became as widespread as it is today? Sound off in the comments.