A person who died at home in Santa Clara County on Feb. 6 was infected with the coronavirus at the time of death, a stunning discovery that makes that individual the first recorded COVID-19 fatality in the United States, according to autopsy results released by public health officials late Tuesday.
That death — three weeks before the first fatality was reported in the U.S., in Washington state on Feb. 28 — adds to increasing evidence that the virus was in the country far earlier than once thought.
Santa Clara County on Tuesday announced three previously unidentified deaths from the coronavirus: the Feb. 6 case; one on Feb. 17, which also predates the death that was earlier believed to be the first; and one on March 6. Initially, the first death in the county had been reported March 9.
“What it means is we had coronavirus circulating in the community much earlier than we had documented and much earlier than we had thought,” said Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County’s public health officer. “Those deaths probably represent many, many more infections. And so there had to be chains of transmission that go back much earlier.”
Cody did not provide details about the people who died in February but said the deaths “tell us we had community transmission – probably significant community transmission – far before we realized it and documented it.”
“From what we understand, neither of the cases had a history of travel,” Cody said. “So we assume that they were acquired locally.”
People typically die of COVID-19 about a month after they are infected with the coronavirus, suggesting that the person who died Feb. 6 likely was infected in early January. At that time, the virus had been reported only in China — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not yet issued any advisories to Americans about the potential threat.