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COVID-19’s Patient Zero

Christian physician assistant Keith Erickson treated the first known case of the coronavirus in the United States

Keith Erickson Sandy Solis

COVID-19’s Patient Zero
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When a 35-year-old man with a cough and a fever came into an urgent care clinic in Snohomish County, Wash., on Jan. 19, 2020, physician assistant Keith Erickson assumed he was attending to another flu patient.

Little did he know the man waiting in the exam room had contracted the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. And while the patient’s identity remains anonymous, medical journals and news reports in the United States know him as Patient Zero, the first person in the United States officially diagnosed with the respiratory illness COVID-19.

Erickson also remained anonymous until he agreed to tell his story to WORLD in May. He works at a family practice during the week and moonlights at the urgent care clinic. Several times a month he volunteers at Safe Harbor, a free faith-based medical clinic he helped establish.

The patient told Erickson he had arrived in Washington four days earlier from his home in Wuhan, China, where word of a new virus and its deadly symptoms was spreading. Unaware of the outbreak, Erickson left the man in the exam room to check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website for information. There he found a bulletin urging health officials to be on the lookout for patients matching three criteria: travel from China, fever, and respiratory illness.

Check. Check. And check.

Erickson called the Washington State Health Department about his patient. The department called the CDC, and soon Erickson received a call from someone who identified herself as the head of epidemiology at the CDC. That began a five-hour barrage of phone calls and inquiries while the patient sat in the exam room. Erickson relayed questions between the health officials and the patient.

“Then the CDC, they talked among themselves, and decided this might be Patient Zero in the United States,” Erickson said. They told him to put on his N95 mask, face shield, and other personal protective equipment to collect oral, nasal, and blood samples from his patient. A health department officer placed the samples in a biohazard box and sent it to the CDC in Atlanta.

Meanwhile, Erickson sent the patient home with a mask, gloves, and orders to quarantine.

On Monday, Erickson returned to work at the family clinic. The next day, the CDC called him back with more orders: “You need to stop what you’re doing. Turn your computer off and go home. Put your mask on. Put your gloves on.” Then he found out the patient had tested positive for the new coronavirus.

The CDC ordered Erickson, and three colleagues from the urgent care clinic who came in contact with Patient Zero, to quarantine for two weeks. The CDC began contact tracing the man’s movements since his arrival in the United States. By this time, the man had been admitted to Providence Regional Medical Center for treatment.

Erickson tested negative for the virus, but a week later he developed a headache and a slight fever. As more news of the deadly virus came out of Wuhan, he grew concerned. It caused him to take stock of his faith: Did he truly believe God was who He said He is? “If I believe in a God that is all-knowing, all-powerful, yet loving, I have nothing to fear,” Erickson said. “That’s how my wife and I came to our conclusion that even if I contracted the disease and die, then my wife would be OK because the Lord is in charge.”

Erickson never contracted the virus, and Patient Zero recovered.

In his profession, Erickson is constantly reminded that he lives in a fallen world with fallen people. Yet he says his hope is in heaven: “There will be no illness. There will be no tears. There will be no sickness. That’s what I look for. That’s where I will be. That was the comfort.”

Bonnie Pritchett Bonnie is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas School of Journalism. Bonnie resides with her family in League City, Texas.


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