In January, Dr. Michael Webber flew into Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). At first, it seemed like the typical “Las Vegas convention experience”. But then, he got sick.
Three months later, Webber tested positive for antibodies indicating he was infected by a coronavirus. I recently spoke with Webber about his harrowing experience, and I now have more questions about when and how Nevada’s COVID-19 outbreak began.
“I worried I might get sick also. And surely enough, a couple days later on January 12, I started to show symptoms.”
– Dr. Michael E. Webber, ENGIE Chief Science and Technology Officer and UT Austin professor
Dr. Michael E. Webber serves as the Chief Science and Technology Officer at ENGIE (a multinational electric utility company based in France), and he teaches on energy resources and mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin). Last month, Webber opened up to American Public Media (APM) and the San Jose Mercury News on his CES experience and his ensuing illness. Last week, he spoke with us and provided some additional updates and details on the curious case of his Las Vegas CES trip.
So when did Webber first realize he was sick? According to Webber, “I noticed people around me at the Las Vegas Airport on January 10, as I was awaiting my transatlantic flight, coughing and sneezing. They sounded sick, so I noticed.” He continued, “I worried I might get sick also. And surely enough, a couple days later on January 12, I started to show symptoms.”
Then, Webber described the symptoms: “I had a lot of chills, sore throat, headache, body ache. I didn’t breathe well. I didn’t sleep well. I had those intense symptoms for five days, then I had a nagging cough for another three weeks after that.”
“I’ve had strep throat before. I had the flu before. I’ve had other illnesses before, but this felt different.”
– Dr. Michael Webber
So what’s happened since APM and the Mercury News published their stories? For one, Webber now has two more test results confirming he has coronavirus antibodies. And while these tests couldn’t produce absolute proof that Webber specifically contracted COVID-19, the symptoms he experienced in January do hew closely to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) respective lists of COVID-19 symptoms.
Or as Webber stated, “I’ve had strep throat before. I had the flu before. I’ve had other illnesses before, but this felt different.” After harboring lingering suspicions, Webber got tested in France (where he typically spends much of the year), and eventually got three rounds of the same type of antibody test that all came back coronavirus-positive late last month.
Also, Webber has compared notes with his boss: “I was traveling with my boss. He also got sick.” Webber then noted, “He had symptoms for several weeks. He and I had been traveling together, and we got sick around the same time.” And from there, Webber added, “There were other people around us who were sick in Las Vegas. We don’t know what they were sick with, but it’s starting to sound like they were sick with this strange virus.”
Webber is not the only one who caught a “strange bug” at CES, and CES is no longer the only American event being investigated as a possible site where early COVID-19 infections occurred.
After I initially reached out to Webber, but before my formal interview with him, I spoke off the record with someone based here in Nevada whose story eerily matches Webber’s. This person met with people during CES Week who were coming and going from Las Vegas Convention Center, then developed a swollen lymph node and felt seriously ill for several days, and continued to suffer a nagging cough for over a month.
On top of their respective stories and the R-J’s Michael Scott Davidson’s recent examination of CES workers falling ill in January, we have plenty more anecdotal stories across the internet of people who came to Las Vegas for CES in January and left with a mysterious illness. We’ll be stepping up our efforts to reach out to more people and gather more information in the days ahead. In addition, we’ll continue to monitor additional new reporting on other possible early encounters with COVID-19, such as The Hollywood Reporter’s story on a strange illness that befell several people who attended the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in late January.
Before I continue, I must stress this point: I am not a trained epidemiologist or virologist, so I can not definitely prove to you that CES, Sundance, or any other major American conference that occurred in January was some “super secret super-spreader” event. We can, however, shed a bright light on this in hopes that trained professionals will eventually conduct their own investigation and get to the bottom of this.
Why does this even matter? (Here’s where we need to talk about contact tracing.)
Last week, Vox’s Dylan Scott thoroughly explained the in’s and out’s of contact tracing, or the effort to locate and notify every person who’s been in contact with anyone who tests positive for a viral disease like COVID-19. Contact tracing has already been identified as a potentially very valuable part of state and local authorities’ plans to reopen society and respond better to future outbreaks.
During a press call last week, Rep. Susie Lee (D-Las Vegas) indicated that House Democrats will push to include more federal funding for expanded contact tracing in their upcoming “CARES 2.0” aid package. And during an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell last Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) said, “To unlock the lockdown is to test and trace and isolate social distancing and when science tells us to do something differently.”
However, recent reports from the Associated Press and The Daily Beast indicate that President Donald Trump is ignoring his own administration’s expert data and recommendations so he can instead plow forward with a more brazenly political message of, “There’ll be more death, [but] we have to get our country back.” And unlike other countries, such as South Korea and Germany, that have implemented aggressive contact tracing nationwide, the Trump administration has left it up to state and local authorities to figure out contract tracing while the White House instead doubles down on “messaging”.
“No, they have not contacted me, not to my knowledge.”
– Dr. Michael Webber, on whether any Nevada health officials have contacted him since he first went public with his story
During our conversation last week, I asked Webber if anyone from the Southern Nevada Health District or any Nevada state health officials. He responded, “No, they have not contacted me, not to my knowledge.”
On one hand, I get it: The state and local health officials who are leading Nevada’s contact tracing efforts are probably more concerned about investigating current and ongoing risks of COVID-19 infection than digging into the past. However, if we never learn all the facts on how the novel coronavirus arrived in Nevada and spread amongst residents and visitors, how will we prepare for future outbreaks? If we don’t get the facts now on how this outbreak began, how will we learn how to better protect residents and residents going forward?
Before I go (for now), I must reiterate: I am not an epidemiologist or a virologist, and we still don’t have enough hard evidence to definitely determine when the novel coronavirus arrived in Nevada (and in the overall U.S., for that matter). This is why we need to allow real scientists to do their work and follow the facts wherever they lead.
If you’re in need of medical treatment, contact your primary health care provider first. If you fear you can’t afford treatment from a hospital or doctor’s office, check with the Southern Nevada Health District, Washoe County Health District, Carson City Health and Human Services, or the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services for resources in your area. For additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square.
Cover photo provided by Dr. Michael Webber.