COVID-19 may have been in SWFL earlier than thought

Reporter: Taylor Petras Writer: Jackie Winchester

Could the coronavirus have been in Southwest Florida prior to when the state recorded the first case?

A Collier County woman believes she may have had it in January.

Lee Health announced Southwest Florida’s first case on March 7, but Thais Tepper of Chokoloskee said her antibody results confirm she was infected before the first cases were ever reported.

She describes it as one of the worst illnesses of her life.

“It is everything they say. It is the near-death experience,” she said.

Tepper believes she and her 28-year-old son became infected with the coronavirus after a trip to the East Coast of Florida in late January.

A few days later, their symptoms started.

“I’m feeling very dizzy and I couldn’t even describe how I felt,” Tepper said. “The next day my son woke up and he couldn’t breathe. My son couldn’t breathe and I could not breathe and both of us were coughing.”

She tested negative for flu and strep throat. It wasn’t until an antibody test last month that her suspicions were confirmed. Results showed she had COVID-19, weeks before the state announced its first case.

“I don’t know how many people I infected,” she said. “That’s what motivated me to donate blood. Oh my God, I sure hope that I didn’t cause any fatalities.”

While hundreds of people are waiting in lines for diagnostic tests, Tepper wants to see more antibody tests being done.

“I know what it was like to watch my son almost die. I can’t imagine somebody on a ventilator and they can’t even be with their parent or their child or their family member.”

The Collier County Health Department said it has no data to suggest there were any earlier cases of COVID-19 in the county before its first case was reported on March 11.

Tepper said she let the health department know about her positive antibody test but hasn’t received any followup from them.

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