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Did CES Help Spread The Coronavirus?

Crowds enter the convention center on the first day of the CES tech show, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, in Las Vegas.
(AP Photo/John Locher)

Crowds enter the convention center on the first day of the CES tech show, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, in Las Vegas.

While everyone is quarantined and waiting for the coronavirus to fade from Nevada, there are questions about whether a convention in Las Vegas is partly to blame for the viruses worldwide spread. 

The convention is the Consumer Electronics Show.

This year, it happened over four days in early January and attracted some 170,000 people.

State of Nevada broadcast a live show from the convention floor. 

At the time, little was known about the novel coronavirus. But in the weeks that followed, people who were at the convention started getting sick. 

Angela Caputo, a reporter at American Public Media, started looking into the idea after hearing chatter about CES attendees getting sick.

“We just heard people talking about this really nasty, strange flu that they got,” she said.

However, Caputo and her colleagues knew that it was a particularly bad flu season for much of the country and they couldn't dismiss the idea that those getting sick actually had the flu.

And they still can't say for sure. Some of their sources have received antibody tests for COVID-19, which tests to see if someone has been exposed to the disease and their body has produced antibodies to fight it. 

Some of those tests have come back positive but not all antibody tests available right now are accurate. Caputo believes that as more accurate tests roll out they will have a better picture of the virus and how it spread.  

While they can't say for sure, Caputo and her colleagues are continuing to gather evidence that is bringing up intriguing questions like: Why did the virus show up in greater numbers in Santa Clara County, California, home to Silicon Valley the country's high-tech hub, instead of San Francisco, which has a higher density of people and more direct flights to and from China?

“It just seemed like the perfect storm when you look at who attended, where they went back to, where these hot spots were taking off and just the timing," Caputo said, "The fact that it was not on anyone’s mind at that time so it really could have spread undetected.”

Caputo and her team contacted the Southern Nevada Health District and the state health department to get information about the virus and CES. 

"They had no communication about COVID being present at CES,” she said. “To us, it just means, that at this time, it confirms that no one was paying attention and no one was really asking these questions.”

They also contacted the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority but have not received their public records request yet.

In addition, Caputo has talked to doctors and public health specialists about the question of CES and COVID-19 and their answers are the same: We don't know.

She said the evidence doesn't go back far enough because there wasn't enough testing. However, researchers believe there were a lot of starting points for the outbreak.

"There were a lot of little fires everywhere that turned into this wildfire that is now put the United States ahead of every other country in terms of the spread of COVID,” she said.

Caputo and her colleagues plan to continue to dig into the question. She would like anyone who attended CES and became ill with the coronavirus to contact her.

She said with more testing, and possibly more positive cases found after someone has died without being diagnosed, the timeline of the outbreak will change.

For now, the evidence is mounting in one direction.

“From our reporting, from when we first started asking this question until now, the evidence has continued to build to suggest that it was indeed present at this conference versus killing the hypothesis or question that we were posing,” she said.

Angela Caputo, reporter, American Public Media

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.