The two deaths point to community spread of the virus in California earlier than previously thought

By Claudia Harmata
April 22, 2020 12:52 PM
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A new autopsy report reveals that two people in California died of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in early February, nearly three weeks before the previously presumed first reported death from the disease in Washington state, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

The Santa Clara Medical Examiner-Coroner said they received confirmation from the CDC on Tuesday after sending the agency tissue samples to test for the virus.

According to health officials, the two people died at home on Feb. 6 and Feb. 17 in Santa Clara County. Neither had any known travel histories to China or anywhere else that would have exposed them to the virus, Dr. Sara Cody, the county’s chief medical officer, told The New York Times.

Prior to this revelation, the first known reported death from COVID-19 in the United State was on Feb. 29 in Kirkland, Washington.

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“Each one of those deaths is probably the tip of an iceberg of unknown size,” Cody told the Times. “It feels quite significant. [The virus] was probably around unrecognized for quite some time.”

Dr. Ashish K. Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, agreed with Cody while speaking to CNN on Wednesday, saying that this new information could change our understanding of the virus’s spread throughout the country.

“That is a very significant finding,” Jha said. “Somebody who died on February 6, they probably contracted that virus early to mid-January. It takes at least two to three weeks from the time you contract the virus and you die from it.”

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He also commented on the significance of the two deaths being unrelated to travel exposure.

“That means there was community spread happening in California as early as mid-January, if not earlier than that,” Jha added. “We really need to now go back, look at a lot more cases from January — even December — and try to sort out when did we first really encounter this virus in the United States.”

According to a press release from the Santa Clara County public health department, there was also a third death related to COVID-19 in the county in early March.

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“These three individuals died at home during a time when very limited testing was available only through the CDC,” the statement reads. “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.”

The department said that as they continue to investigate other deaths throughout the county, they expect to identify additional people who died from the coronavirus in the early weeks of the outbreak.

Over the weekend, the California Department of Public Health set in place new testing guidance that now allows testing for people in high-risk settings — such as hospitals, jails and homeless shelters — even if they do not have symptoms, Time reported.

As of Wednesday, April 22, California accounts for 35,845 cases of the virus in the U.S. and at least 1,316 Californians have died.

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