Evidence for limited early spread of COVID-19 within the United States, January–February 2020

CDC COVID-19 Response Team, Jorden MA, Rudman SL, Villarino E, Hoferka S, Patel MT, Bemis K, Simmons CR, Jespersen M, Johnson JI, Mytty E, Arends KD, Henderson JJ, Mathes RW, Weng CX, Duchin J, Lenahan J, Close N, Bedford T, Boeckh M, Chu HY, Englund JA, Famulare M, Nickerson DA, Rieder MJ, Shendure J, Starita LM. 2020. Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 69: 680-684.


What is already known about this topic? The first U.S. cases of nontravel–related COVID-19 were confirmed on February 26 and 28, 2020, suggesting that community transmission was occurring by late February.

What is added by the report? Four separate lines of evidence (syndromic surveillance, virus surveillance, phylogenetic analysis, and retrospectively identified cases) suggest that limited U.S. community transmission likely began in late January or early February 2020, after a single importation from China, followed by multiple importations from Europe. Until late February, COVID-19 incidence was too low to be detected by emergency department syndromic surveillance for COVID-19–like illness.

What are the implications for public health practice? Enhanced syndromic and virus surveillance will be needed to monitor COVID-19 trends for the duration of the pandemic.