The medical examiner in Santa Clara, California, confirmed Tuesday that two COVID-19 deaths happened there in early February, becoming the country’s first known coronavirus fatalities—and possibly providing clues about how early the virus was spreading in the U.S.
The Los Angeles Times reported that two people in Santa Clara County infected with coronavirus died on February 6 and February 17; an additional COVID-19 death was confirmed March 6.
Tissue samples were used to determine the Santa Clara County deaths were from coronavirus, and were confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control, the New York Times reported.
Prior to Tuesday, the first report of a U.S. COVID-19 fatality was on February 29 in Kirkland, Washington, and officials later determined two people who died in the area February 26 also had the virus.
The two California residents who died in February did not have travel histories that would have exposed them to COVID-19, according to the New York Times.
The newly confirmed deaths suggest COVID-19 was spreading earlier than was previously believed—likely “back in December,” Santa Clara County executive and medical doctor Jeffrey V. Smith told the Los Angeles Times.
“This wasn’t recognized because we were having a severe flu season,” Smith said, adding, “Symptoms are very much like the flu. If you got a mild case of COVID, you didn’t really notice. You didn’t even go to the doctor.”
“These three individuals died at home during a time when very limited testing was available only through the [CDC]. Testing criteria set by the CDC at the time restricted testing to only individuals with a known travel history and who sought medical care for specific symptoms,” said the Santa Clara County medical examiner in a statement. “As the Medical Examiner-Coroner continues to carefully investigate deaths throughout the county, we anticipate additional deaths from COVID-19 will be identified.”
What we don’t know
Why it took months to confirm the Santa Clara County deaths were caused by COVID-19, the New York Times reported.
Gene sequencing conducted in Washington State showed that the coronavirus might have been spreading there for weeks, with January 20 being the date for the state’s first confirmed case, according to a March 1, 2020, New York Times report. U.S. officials determined cases in travelers from abroad that same month, but did not confirm community spread of COVID-19 for weeks. Other possible indications that the virus was spreading earlier than was believed include the Grand Princess cruise ship that set sail from San Francisco, California on February 11, with passengers that later displayed symptoms. Researchers also believe that the virus was spreading in New York by the middle of February.
Most New York Coronavirus Cases Came From Europe, Genomes Show (New York Times)
Forbes’ Time Line Of The Coronavirus (Forbes)
I’m a New York-based journalist covering breaking news at Forbes. I hold a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Previous bylines: Gotham Gazette, Bklyner, Thrillist, Task & Purpose and xoJane.
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