First US Coronavirus Deaths Occurred Earlier Than Previously Believed, Autopsies Show

The first COVID-19-related death in the United States is now believed to have been on Feb. 6

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An autopsy report has revealed the first COVID-19-related death in the United States happened weeks earlier than previously thought.

Officials in Santa Clara County, California, said Tuesday two people died at home on Feb. 6 and Feb. 17. The Medical Examiner-Coroner received confirmation Tuesday that tissue samples sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested positive for the virus, officials said.

Before this, the first U.S. death from the virus had been reported on Feb. 29 in Kirkland, Washington. 

The autopsy of a third Santa Clara County resident who died on March 6 also tested positive for COVID-19, the Medical Examiner-Coroner said. The county had initially reported its first coronavirus death on March 9.

Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody on Wednesday said the first confirmed COVID-19 death in the county was a 57-year-old woman who died on Feb. 6. Her death appears to be the first confirmed death due to coronavirus in the U.S.

The county said the three deaths were not initially attributed to the coronavirus because the victims died at home during a time when very limited testing was available 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," the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner said in a statement. "As the Medical Examiner-Coroner continues to carefully investigate deaths throughout the county, we anticipate additional deaths from COVID-19 will be identified."

The announcement came after California Gov. Gavin Newsom promised a “deep dive” update Wednesday of the state’s ability to test for the coronavirus and to track and isolate people who have it, one of the six indicators he says is key to lifting a “stay-at-home” order that has slowed the spread of the disease while forcing millions of people to file for unemployment benefits.

California has more than 35,600 confirmed coronavirus cases and 1,300 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Nationwide the number of infections neared 1 million and the death toll topped 45,000.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

The Associated Press/NBC Bay Area
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