First U.S. coronavirus death happened weeks earlier than previously thought

Back on February 29, health officials in Washington state reported the first known death from coronavirus in the United States.

The person who died was a man in his 50s with underlying health conditions, and there was no evidence he contracted the virus through travel, health officials said. They suspect domestic “community spread” of the disease, a new phase for the United States that began this week on the West Coast.

But it turns out that was not accurate. Santa Clara County announced today that it had identified three deaths linked to the virus, two of which happened before February 29. In fact, the first newly identified death happened on February 6th, more than three weeks before the death in Washington state which America was told was the first of its kind:

The Medical Examiner-Coroner performed autopsies on two individuals who died at home on February 6, 2020 and February 17, 2020. Samples from the two individuals were sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, the Medical Examiner-Coroner received confirmation from the CDC that tissue samples from both cases are positive for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19)…

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. As the Medical Examiner-Coroner continues to carefully investigate deaths throughout the county, we anticipate additional deaths from COVID-19 will be identified.

February 6th was around the time when state labs were realizing that test kits manufactured and sent out by the CDC didn’t work properly. Investigation would later clarify that one third of the CDC test had been contaminated with the virus during production, meaning it produced a false positive. It took weeks before the problem with the test were straightened out by the FDA and, as a result, America had very little testing in the month of February.

In the long run, it seems the story of the coronavirus is going to wind up being the story of story of Santa Clara County. Santa Clara probably had one of the earliest deaths from the virus. In early March a small study of a few hundred people convinced officials that more needed to be done to prevent the spread of the virus. That study led five other Bay Area counties to join Santa Clara in the first shelter-at-home order in the country. That became a model for the entire state a few days later and many other states followed California’s lead.

More recently, Santa Clara became the site of a new antibody study which suggested many more people have had the virus than we know. I’ll have more to say about that in my next post.

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