Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday that he believes it's possible people in Illinois were contracting and dying from the coronavirus well before the outbreak was widely documented or reported.
Pritzker was asked in his daily briefing about new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the previous day suggesting that between March 8 and April 11, there were an additional 700 deaths above average in Illinois that were not attributed to COVID-19.
Pritzker said he agreed that it could be possible the spike was previously unreported coronavirus fatalities - and that health officials would at some point re-examine those deaths.
"I think everybody's realizing, indeed, there's been a recent report out of California… that shows that people had COVID-19 long before anybody thought here in the United States. And so it's probably true here in Illinois that people had coronavirus long before," he said.
An autopsy report released last week revealed that tissue samples from two people who died in their homes in Santa Clara County, California, on Feb. 6 and Feb. 17 tested positive for the coronavirus.
Prior to the release of that report, the first U.S. death from the virus had been reported on Feb. 29 in Kirkland, Washington - meaning the first COVID-19 death in the country happened weeks earlier than previously thought.
Santa Clara County health officials said the deaths were not initially attributed to the coronavirus because the victims died at home at a time when limited testing for the virus was available - a thought Pritzker echoed on Wednesday.
"Some of the deaths that nobody was even talking about, they didn't have a name for this thing," he said. "People were dying and they may have been put on their death certificate they died of pneumonia or some other respiratory illness."
"So there's no doubt that we're going to need to go back through the records," Pritzker continued, adding, "That's going to probably happen in months hence, because we have so much to do now to focus on keeping people safe and alive now, but we're probably going to have to go back and see you know, how many of these probably, based upon all the symptoms, were COVID-19?"
Pritzker's comments came days after Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike expressed a similar sentiment. Ezike said Friday that it was "very likely" that cases of coronavirus were present in Illinois before the state's first diagnosis, adding that officials would update records to includeany deaths later categorized as those caused by COVID-19.
"When our first case was identified, it was the second case in the U.S. Of course, it begs the question," Ezike said during Friday's briefing. "That individual was not on a flight that came in after any travel restrictions and screenings were in place. So for sure, if we think that this virus originated in Wuhan and people were traveling to the U.S., it is possible, very likely that cases, individuals who had this, had come before our first diagnosed cases."
"So potentially there have been other illnesses that were not appreciated," she continued. "And I know that maybe there'll be requests by families, maybe medical examiners will be reviewing some of their records. We wouldn't stop any of that. If they identify new cases, we will have to adjust our case counts and we will absolutely do that to update our data."
Illinois health officials on Wednesday reported 2,253 new cases of coronavirus, bringing the statewide number of infections to a total of 30,355. An additional 92 deaths reported Wednesday lifted the state's total death toll attributed to the virus to 2,215.