Bay Area man was sick, possibly with COVID-19, long before first known case in Florida

The novel coronavirus might have been in our community much longer than doctors have been able to test for it, medical experts said Thursday after finding out about a recent positive antibody test dating back to early February.

Joe Collier, who is the president of Mainsail Lodging and Development, told FOX 13 he started feeling sick around February 9.

"I was home for a couple of days with fever and then the fever went away and the third day, I developed this very strange cough," Collier said.

After several days, he recovered, but a few weeks later, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the U.S. and the Tampa Bay area, Collier wondered whether that was the illness he had contracted.

He recently received his answer.

"About a week ago, I got the antibody test and it came back. I had positive results on the antibody tests," he said. "[The doctors] said, 'You must have been infected at some point.' So I'm going to go back once a month to have the antibodies tested to see how long those last for."

If this is true, Collier was infected with COVID-19 nearly a month before the state announced the first two positive cases.

Collier said he took a flight from Atlanta in January. Otherwise, Collier said he had not traveled out of the country and was not aware of being in contact with someone who had traveled or tested positive for the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control has confirmed the first known case of community spread in the United States was document February 26, about three weeks after Collier began feeling sick. The CDC says it is now conducting testing across the country to learn more about cases that previously went undetected.

FOX 13's Dr. Joette Giovinco said the virus has likely been in the community for a lot longer than experts realized at first.

"A lot of this is being used for just study purposes to just find out how pervasive this virus was. When did it hit our communities?" Dr. Jo said. "[Researchers are] going back in time. They're taking these respiratory samples that were collected long before we knew that it was in the United States and they're finding it."

Dr. Jo said this raises more questions about immunities and taking blood samples from patients like Collier can help doctors find answers.

"The other thing that we just don't know enough about now is, does this mean we have immunity?" Dr. Jo said. "We have these antibodies, does it protect us? Does it fully protect us? How long will it protect us?"

Collier said he was treating his illness as if he had the flu and was staying away from people, including his family, at the time. He plans to donate blood and plasma samples and help researchers any way he can.

If you feel sick:

The Florida Department of Health has opened a COVID-19 Call Center at 1-866-779-6121. Agents will answer questions around the clock. Questions may also be emailed to Email responses will be sent during call center hours.

LINK: Florida's COVID-19 website

CORONAVIRUS IN FLORIDA: What you need to know


Map of known COVID-19 cases:

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