APR 22, 2020 8:11 AM PDT

First COVID-19 Death Happened in the US Far Earlier Than We Thought

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

By January 21, some of us were aware that a coronavirus was spreading in China, and the situation was serious enough that the World Health Organization (WHO) had been informed weeks earlier, on January 3, 2020. By January 31, WHO had declared a global emergency. We also knew that the virus had already made its way to the United States. At the time, it was thought that there were only six cases of the virus in the US. A public health emergency was also declared in the US, and on February 2, some travel restrictions were put in place for US citizens traveling to China.

The first deaths from the virus that happened outside of China were thought to be happening in early February, and in the US, the first death from SARS-CoV-2 was reported on February 29. It happened at a nursing home in Washington State, in what would be the first of many outbreaks to hit nursing homes.

But now, researchers performing posthumous autopsies have found that the first death from COVID-19 in the United States actually occurred much earlier. While it's possible that new information could come to light and this figure may be revised again, it appears that the first time a person died in the United States from a SARS-CoV-2 infection was on February 6 in California. Autopsies have also shown that two other deaths in California, on February 17 and on March 6, were also due to COVID-19.

"These three individuals died at home during a time when very limited testing was available only through the CDC," said the Santa Clara County, California health department when announcing the findings. "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."

This shows how far public knowledge and a coordinated response were lagging behind the reality when the pandemic started to affect the United States. Recent reports have also suggested that intelligence officials were sounding the alarm about a dangerous virus that was circulating in China in November 2019. It seems there were many missteps in the response to the virus that we will have to learn from if we are to prepare for another one.

This information also lends credence to a recent report that suggested that there have been far more cases in the United States than we've been aware of for some time now.

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell showing morphological signs of apoptosis, infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (orange), isolated from a patient sample. Image captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. / Credit: NIAID

The obvious way out of the crisis that is engulfing the country is testing that identifies who is infected or who has been infected, experts have said. But testing is still not available to most people unless they have a doctor's note, and while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) testing criteria are not as stringent as they were, it still looks like getting tested is a challenging prospect for many people. Even a recently-developed home test by LabCorp, which is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, is only available after a person has consulted with a doctor.

Currently, there have been over 826,000 cases of COVID-19 in the United States; over 45,000 people have died.

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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