By CBSLA Staff

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — UCLA researchers have found evidence that COVID-19 may have been spreading in Southern California since late last year.

A significant increase in patients with coughs and acute respiratory failure at UCLA Health hospitals and clinics in late December suggests COVID-19 may have been circulating in the area months before the first definitive cases in the U.S. were identified, UCLA researchers said this week.

The study appeared in the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Researchers found there was a 50% jump in such cases, when compared to the same period in each of the last five years. The sudden spike in patients with these symptoms continued through February 2020, according to the report.

“For many diseases, data from the outpatient setting can provide an early warning to emergency departments and hospital intensive care units of what is to come,” the study’s lead author and a professor of medicine, Dr. Joann Elmore, said in a statement. “The majority of COVID-19 studies evaluate hospitalization data, but we also looked at the larger outpatient clinic setting, where most patients turn first for medical care when illness and symptoms arise.”

The study evaluated more than 10 million health system and patient visit records for UCLA Health outpatient, emergency department and hospital facilities.

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