First coronavirus death in US was on February 6, three weeks before previously thought

Two people who died in Santa Clara County on February 6 and February 17 have now been confirmed as COVID-19 deaths; the first official recorded death in the US was reported on February 29


                            First coronavirus death in US was on February 6, three weeks before previously thought
(Getty Images)

The first COVID-19 death in the US may have occurred in California on February 6, at least three weeks before the first reported death occurred in Washington state on February 29.

Two people who died in California’s Santa Clara County on February 6 and February 17 have now been confirmed as COVID-19 deaths after autopsies, according to the County’s public health department. This makes them the earliest known victims of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. 

"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 (virus that causes COVID-19)," Santa Clara County said in a statement.

The first official recorded coronavirus death in the US was reported on February 29 in Kirkland, Washington. "The CDC and public health officials in the state of Washington have reported three hospitalized patients who have tested presumptive-positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, including one patient who died. The patient who died, a male in his 50s, was being treated at the same hospital. This is the first reported death in the US from COVID-19," said a February 29 statement from the CDC. Officials, however, later linked two February 26 deaths to COVID-19.

The latest findings indicate that the virus may have spread in the US weeks earlier than previously thought. It reveals that the deadly disease may have had footholds in the US much earlier than previously believed. 

According to Dr Eric Topol, director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, the implications of the latest findings may include that the first identified US COVID-19 case may not have been January 21 in Seattle, but it was much earlier and was missed. Topol also asked, "How many US patients were misdiagnosed in January and February that might be attributed?"

Dr Sara Cody, health director in Santa Clara county, called the deaths "iceberg tips", indicating that spread of the disease had been much worse than what experts originally thought, reports The Guardian. "What these deaths tell us is that we had community transmission, probably to a significant degree, far earlier than we had known and that indicates that the virus was probably introduced and circulating in our community far earlier than we had known," said Dr Cody.

The medical examiner received confirmation from the CDC that tissue samples from two cases are positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 (Getty Images)

Additionally, the Santa Clara County medical examiner has identified a third COVID-19 person who died before March 9, which was originally thought to be the first death associated with the new coronavirus in the county. "The medical examiner-coroner has also confirmed that an individual who died in the county on March 6 died of COVID-19," said health experts.

According to the Santa Clara health department, the three individuals died at home during a time when 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," reads the statement. 

Dr Topol said that the language in the statement released by the Santa Clara County implies community spread by pointing out the restricted CDC testing criteria. "Hopefully much more info soon about timing of symptom onset, contacts, and much more," he added. 

Dr Cody said that none of these three deaths had significant travel history. She suspects that the region’s “robust influenza season this year may have included some cases of coronavirus".

As of April 23, over 842,376 COVID-19 cases have been reported from across the US and more than 46,769 have died in the coronavirus pandemic, shows the Johns Hopkins tracker.

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