After autopsies and testing, California county moves back date of first coronavirus death to early February

New reports indicate the new coronavirus began spreading in the U.S. weeks before it gained widespread notice in late February, and long before mitigation efforts were imposed on the populace in March.

Officials in California reported that three deaths dating back to early February have now been attributed to COVID-19 following autopsies and tests. This means the first coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. happened much earlier than previously known, the New York Post reported.

Coronavirus deaths in early February

It was initially thought that the first U.S. death from the new coronavirus was a man in Washington state who succumbed to the disease on Feb. 29.

However, officials in Santa Clara County now believe that the first coronavirus death in the U.S. occurred on Feb. 6, with a second on Feb. 17 and the third death on March 6.

All three individuals died in their homes from unknown causes prior to the first known COVID-19 death in the county on March 9. None had recently traveled out of the country.

A news release from the Santa Clara County Public Health Emergency Operations Center on Tuesday announced that the county’s “Medical Examiner-Coroner has identified three individuals who died with COVID-19 in Santa Clara County before the COVID-19 associated death on March 9, 2020, originally thought to be the first death associated with COVID-19 in the county.”

Autopsies were performed on the two individuals who died on Feb. 6 and 17, and those samples were sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing, which confirmed the diagnosis. “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),” the release read.

Individuals did not fit initial criteria for testing

Similarly, it was also recently confirmed that the individual who died on March 6 had also tested positive post-death for the virus.

“These three individuals died at home during a time when very limited testing was available only through the CDC,” the news release explained. “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,” the county officials added.

Community spread was happening earlier

The newly identified cases also indicate that the coronavirus was active in the Bay Area much earlier than initially believed. Santa Clara county public health officer Sara Cody said Wednesday described the deaths as the “tip of the iceberg,” which “means there’s some iceberg of cases of unknown size that underlie those iceberg tips. With three of them, that tells us there must have been a somewhat significant degree of community transmission.”

At this point, we’re waiting on more testing, both for current infections as well as for antibodies from previous infections, so we can get a better grasp on just how broadly the virus has spread and how many people unknowingly contracted it before the lockdowns were put in place.

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