First US Coronavirus Death Occurred in Early February, Autopsy Results Show

Cindy Morris, left, and Swarnamala Ratnayaka prepare RNA for testing for the new coronavirus at the molecular pathology lab at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Thursday, April 2, 2020. The test is identical to the PCR test being used by the Centers for Disease Control to ease the testing crisis and stop the spread of COVID-19, which has hit the New Orleans area especially hard. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)


Officials in Santa Clara County, California announced Tuesday that the county’s first coronavirus death occurred on February 6, more than a month before previously thought. Prior to the announcement it was believed that the first Wuhan flu death in the United States occurred in Washington State on February 29. The determination was made after tissue samples taken during autopsy were tested by the Centers for Disease Control.

County officials believe that individual’s infection, along with those of two individuals who died February 17 and March 6, originated within the community. Until the autopsy tissue results were received, county health officials believed that the first coronavirus death in Santa Clara occurred on March 9.

Jeff Smith, County Executive, confirmed to Mercury News that testing results were received by the county on Tuesday, and that County Medical Examiner-Coroner protocol dictates that:

“[N]asal swabs are performed on those decedents who exhibited flu-like symptoms prior to death and submitted for viral testing that includes a panel for influenza A and B, parainfluenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19.”

Smith also said that the results show that coronavirus has been in the community for a while:

“We know there was a person diagnosed in late January with the virus — but to have at least three people right around the beginning of February and late January already have the infection and two of them pass away means the virus has been around for a while.”


The individuals died at home and weren’t tested for coronavirus at the time because limited testing was available and criteria were much more stringent. A statement released by the county Tuesday stated:

“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….As the Medical Examiner-Coroner continues to carefully investigate deaths throughout the county, we anticipate additional deaths from COVID-19 will be identified.”

A preliminary study released Friday by Stanford University-led researchers found that actual Wuhan coronavirus infections in Santa Clara County were likely 50 to 85 times higher than reported cases, also suggesting that the virus has been active in California’s Bay Area much longer than thought.


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