COVID-19 community spread may be asymptomatic

Published 6:06 pm Wednesday, April 22, 2020

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Seventeen people in Beaufort County have tested positive for COVID-19. Two of them had no symptoms of the virus.

According to Beaufort County Health Director Jim Madson, both cases were discovered during the lead-up to medical procedures.

“In one case, it was a preoperative test. The one person was going into operation, and in pre-op, they found the person to be positive,” Madson said. He added that the second person also was tested before a medical procedure, and that person had had close contact with someone who’d already tested positive for COVID-19.

“When we asked them about symptoms, neither one of them said they had had symptoms recently,” Madson said. “One of them reported no symptoms at all; the other one reported symptoms back in November, but that was before there were cases in the U.S. … This is something that’s being found across the country. There seems to be quite a few asymptomatic (cases) — they’re so mild, they didn’t know.”

The symptoms of a severe COVID-19 infection are clear: fever, coughing, having trouble breathing. There’s growing evidence, however, that many more people could have the virus and spread it unknowingly.

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a recent NPR interview that as many as 25% of those infected with COVID-19 may be asymptomatic.

Madson said these reports of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases indicate there’s a higher prevalence of COVID-19 than previously thought, but it is likely more difficult to contract COVID-19 from asymptomatic carriers.

“If they’re not symptomatic, then they’re not coughing, so the potential for spread is much lower, and the six-foot (social) distancing would help with that,” Madson said.

The virus is largely spread through close contact with someone already carrying it, according to the CDC, but the data defining close contact has several factors that increase exposure risk: proximity, the duration of exposure, whether the individual has symptoms and whether the individual is wearing a facemask to block respiratory secretions. Prolonged exposure time likely increases the risk, according to the CDC’s website.

“Prolonged contact is (defined as) 10 minutes or more, less than six feet apart, but with an asymptomatic person, it’s probably much longer than that,” Madson said.

Even so, Madson said the asymptomatic transmission of the virus points to why it remains important to continue social distancing and take other preventative measures.

“The precautions that people take when they go out are very helpful to minimize the spread,” Madson said. “Asymptomatic (cases) wearing masks in public reduces that even more.”

The number of cases in Beaufort County is low compared to many counties across the state, and there’s a reason for that, Madson said: “Right now, it seems like we are not hit very hard with COVID-19; it seems that most of the cases seem to stay in the Piedmont area, but we do see some pockets (in eastern North Carolina). It helps that we’re a rural county. It helps cut down on the transmission.”