First Known Coronavirus Death in U.S. Occurred Three Weeks Earlier Than First Reported

Emergency Medical Technicians wearing protective gear wheel a sick patient to a waiting ambulance during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in New York City, March 28, 2020.

The first known person to die from the coronavirus passed away on February 6 in California, a new discovery that shows the coronavirus was spreading in the U.S. weeks earlier than previously believed.

The person died at home in Santa Clara County three weeks before the first coronavirus death was reported in Washington state on February 28. A second previously unidentified coronavirus death on February 17 also occurred in the northern California county before the first reported death. A third death on March 6 also predates the county’s first reported death from the respiratory virus, which occurred on March 9. Neither February case was known to have traveled outside the country recently, sparking suspicions that they picked up the virus locally.

Dr. Sara Cody, public health officer for Santa Clara County, said the early February death indicates there was “probably significant community transmission” of the coronavirus long before it was discovered.

“What it means is we had coronavirus circulating in the community much earlier than we had documented and much earlier than we had thought,” Cody said. “Those deaths probably represent many, many more infections. And so there had to be chains of transmission that go back much earlier.”

The county has reported 1,946 cases of the coronavirus since the outbreak began, and 88 people have died.

The first community transmission of the virus was originally reported on February 26 in Solano County, Calif., just after President Trump announced during a news briefing that  the risk posed by the virus was still small, in part due to his administration’s travel restrictions on areas where the virus was spreading at greater rates.

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