The First U.S. Coronavirus Deaths Were Weeks Earlier Than Previously Thought

Workers removing a body from a refrigerated truck serving as a temporary morgue at the Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York City.
Workers removing a body from a refrigerated truck serving as a temporary morgue at the Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York City.
Photo: Getty Images

Weeks before the first documented U.S. death from covid-19, at least two people in California likely died from the virus. On Tuesday, health officials in Santa Clara, California announced that the deaths of two residents in early and mid-February are now believed to be related to the novel coronavirus.

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According to the Santa Clara Medical Examiner-Coroner’s office, the two deaths occurred on February 6 and 17. A third death in the county on March 6 was also reclassified as related to covid-19.

At the time of these deaths, officials said, testing for the coronavirus was limited and only available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had placed strict criteria on who could be tested. These criteria included a recent history of travel to countries where the virus was known to be spreading widely. But tissue samples from these deaths were nonetheless sent to the CDC, and on Tuesday, the medical examiner’s office received confirmation that they had tested positive for the virus.

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The newly confirmed deaths predate the first known covid-19-related death in the U.S., which was reported in Washington State on February 29. They’re also earlier than the first known death in Santa Clara, which occurred on March 9. These reclassified deaths aren’t exactly a surprise, though.

Other research has suggested that the virus was circulating in parts of the U.S. far earlier than testing at the time confirmed. Genetic analysis of viral strains taken from cases in Washington State, for instance, indicated that the virus had been spreading locally as far back as mid-January. That time period would line up well with the timeline of these deaths in nearby California, given that deaths from the virus often lag behind the onset of symptoms by several weeks.

Though testing has become more readily available, experts generally still agree that many deaths related to the virus are going uncounted. A recent analysis from the New York Times, for instance, estimated that at least 25,000 deaths due to covid-19 had been unreported in 10 countries and New York City between early March to mid-April. According to the World Health Organization, there have been 162,000 deaths reported officially as of April 21.

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New York has started to include data on probable covid-19 deaths not confirmed by lab testing, while the CDC has also said that it will collect and present data on confirmed and probable deaths from states. But it’s not clear whether all states have followed suit. Santa Clara officials expect that more deaths will be retroactively linked to covid-19.

“As the Medical Examiner-Coroner continues to carefully investigate deaths throughout the county, we anticipate additional deaths from COVID-19 will be identified,” the office said in a statement.

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Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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DISCUSSION

Two studies looking for antibodies, one from Stanford and one from USC are finding ~50X more folks have been infected than confirmed cases. If true, the good news is that it’s not nearly as deadly as thought, more like 0.2 to 0.5%. Still considerably worse than the flu. But, it also means it has spread much faster and to many more people than thought and also causes far more hospitalizations. It would mean NY city has actually had ~3M actual cases out of 8.4M people, which is staggering and hard to believe. And, it means it is mostly asymptomatic and invisible. We need more data... More testing for the virus and the antibodies...