There were at least five coronavirus infections in Ohio as far back as January, the state’s health director said, suggesting the illness began spreading there weeks earlier than previously thought.

The five early cases – believed to have emerged across five Ohio counties between January 7 and 27 – were announced on Monday by Department of Health Director Dr Amy Acton, who said the previously unknown infections were picked up amid ramped up antibody testing.

“We actually have a new date of onset. We have found five cases now when the date of onset of symptoms was in January,” Acton told a statehouse press conference. “We are doing a lot more investigation, our disease detectives are going back to take a look at that and see if they were associated with travel.”

These cases now, we can pick them up because of the antibody testing. We are going to learn more and more about this disease, how long it was here in Ohio, how long it was spreading.

Ohio announced its first three confirmed cases of Covid-19 on March 10, and previously estimated the earliest onset date – when the infection actually took place – around early February, suggesting the virus had started spreading in the state a full month earlier than was known before. As state health officials continue to expand antibody tests, the date could be pushed back even further.

The five residents are considered “probable” cases due to the presence of antibodies in their systems – which are part of the body’s immune response – however a health department spokesperson said they can never be definitively confirmed as they never received a test while their infections were active. It remains unclear how each may have contracted the virus, but two of the patients say they traveled out of state around the time in question.

Ohio has tallied just shy of 25,000 cases and some 1,357 fatalities throughout the coronavirus pandemic, accounting for a fraction of the US’ total disease toll of 1.3 million and over 80,000 deaths. Though the state continues to see new infections, it is moving ahead on plans to lift sweeping lockdown measures imposed to stem the spread of the illness, with retail stores set to reopen on Tuesday and a number of other sectors following in the coming days.

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