COVID-19 spread in the US much earlier than reported
By Zhang Mengxu
People's Daily app


Santa Clara County Public Health Department Director Dr. Sara Cody speaks during a news conference in San Jose, California February 28, 2020. 

Washington (People's Daily) - Autopsy results have revealed that two Californians died of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in early February, three weeks before the widely believed first virus fatality in the US.  

The autopsy reports, released last week by Santa Clara County public health officials, found that as early as February 6, people had already died of the virus, 20 days earlier than first reported. 

A 57-year-old woman who died in her home on February 6 is the earliest recorded COVID-19 fatality in the US, according to an autopsy conducted by the county's medical examiner and obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle.

The county's public health department said the forensic department had conducted an autopsy on two victims who died on February 6 and February 17. Tissue samples from both victims were sent to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and tested positive for COVID-19. 

A separate victim, who passed away on March 6, was also confirmed to have died of COVID-19. All three victims died in their homes.  

The statement said at that time, US capabilities in detecting COVID-19 were limited, and tests could only be conducted by the CDC. The disease-prevention agency stipulated that only people who had traveled to COVID-19 risk areas and those with specific symptoms that needed medical treatment could be tested. Local health officials said that neither of the two victims had gone to a COVID-19 high-risk area. 

The Los Angeles Times quoted Santa Clara County Health Director Sarah Cody as saying that because of the flu season and limited testing, COVID-19 awareness was in the development stages, so the victims were misdiagnosed.

Neeraj Sood of the USC Price School of Public Policy said that when deaths begin to appear, it indicates the virus had already existed in the community for a long time. Sood believes COVID-19 started to spread in communities three weeks before the first death.

Previously, the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the US was reported in Seattle, Washington, in late January. About one month later, Washington State reported the first COVID-19 fatality nationwide.

Newly confirmed deaths are "the tip of the iceberg," representing a large number of cases that have not been discovered and reflect the severity of transmissions. 

California Governor Newsom said he had instructed state forensic experts to perform autopsies on those who died last December to determine when the novel coronavirus started to spread throughout the state.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the state's forensic department provided "key information" on the earliest COVID-19 cases in the US. At the same time, health officials focused entirely on screening foreign arrivals and returning cruise ship passengers.

Dr. Ashish K. Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said the finding was significant. "Somebody who died on February 6, they probably contracted that virus early to mid-January," Jha told CNN. "It takes at least two to three weeks from the time you contract the virus to when you die from it."

If the victims did not contract COVID-19 from traveling abroad, "that means there was community spread happening in California as early as mid-January, if not earlier," Jha said. 

"We really need to now go back, look at a lot more cases from January -- even December -- and try to sort out when did we first really encounter this virus in the United States," Jha said.