Coronavirus hit Florida earlier than we thought — on a door handle at UF

A new study found a strain of the virus was present on the Gainesville campus earlier than the state’s first official case.
Caroline Stephenson, a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental & Global Health at the University of Florida, sets up a test to process swab samples.
Caroline Stephenson, a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental & Global Health at the University of Florida, sets up a test to process swab samples. [ Courtesy of John Lednicky ]
Published Feb. 11, 2021|Updated Feb. 11, 2021

Around this time last year, a group of researchers at the University of Florida began their annual search for flu samples.

For 19 days, professor John Lednicky and his laboratory took swab samples from a door handle at a busy campus building, and on four of those days they found a strain of influenza. But one day’s samples — from Feb. 21, 2020 — yielded something more notable: The researchers found the same strain of COVID-19 that had been circulating in Washington state at that time.

That’s more than a week before March 1, 2020, when the virus was officially first detected in Florida. The UF findings were reported last month in the journal PLOS One.

Lednicky, who works in the university’s Department of Environmental & Global Health, said he wasn’t surprised to see that COVID-19 had shown up in Gainesville that early. He’s been studying environmental samples on campus for 10 years, tracking what strains of influenza and other respiratory viruses are circulating.

“It’s typically the case, before any outbreak happens, there’s spread of whatever the pathogen is that goes around but people don’t recognize it,” he said.

But finding this one involved some luck, he allowed.

“It just goes to show somebody had it and it just so happened they coughed in their hand or pushed the door, I don’t know, but probably through their hands,” Lednicky said.

“What you see with a lot of younger people, you see they’re either asymptomatic or they have the sniffles or what they think is just a mild respiratory illness, and without knowing what they have, they keep going to class. They think it’s nothing or they think it’s allergies. That’s what happens when you have a young healthy population.”

Lednicky said he believes the virus likely arrived in Florida through people traveling from China after Lunar New Year. Because of its international visitors, he said, the state is often among the first to see viruses like dengue and Zika.

“Florida is a big vacation destination, not only for Americans but for people from Europe, South America, especially people going down to the Keys or Disney World,” Lednicky said. “So we always have a lot of internationals here and they bring with them all kinds of pathogens. Florida’s kind of like ground zero for a lot of things.”

He added that other viruses have seen an overall decline during the pandemic as people are more conscientious about hygiene and mask wearing.

“Because we’ve been doing social distancing, face masks, people are paying attention to their hand washing hygiene, there’s very little of anything,” he said.

But he doesn’t expect that to last.

“I don’t think any of this is going to become the norm,” he said. “Humans are social creatures and we like to be around other people.... Especially when you have young people who think they have strong immune systems and don’t take this very seriously, things are going to go back to the way they are. It’s just human nature.”