County health officials at press conference
Sara Cody, Santa Clara County's public health officer, speaks at a county press conference Friday, March 13, 2020. Image courtesy of Santa Clara County Public Health.

    Santa Clara County may have had the earliest coronavirus-related deaths in the nation, pointing to weeks of the virus circulating in the county before anyone realized, according to new autopsy information revealed this week.

    The county’s medical examiner-coroner released data on three newly identified coronavirus cases that resulted in death dating back to February 6. Previously, county officials believed the first “community transmission” of the deadly respiratory illness happened in late February, resulting in a March 9 death.

    To date, 1,962 people have tested positive for the coronavirus and 94 people have been confirmed to have died from the virus, which causes a deadly respiratory illness known as COVID-19.

    The announcement Wednesday shows the virus began circulating in the community before health officials were aware, and more than a month before the top health officers in the Bay Area issued a mandatory shelter-in-place order effective March 17.

    “When you have an outcome like death or ICU, that means that there’s some iceberg of cases of unknown size that underlie those iceberg tips,” Dr. Sara Cody, the county’s top health official, said during a news briefing Wednesday. “With three of them, that tells us that there must have been a somewhat significant degree of community transmission.”

    The three new deaths identified this week include a 57-year-old woman, who died on Feb. 6; a 69-year-old man who died on Feb. 17; and a 70-year-old man who died on March 6, Cody said.

    None of those people had traveled to areas where they would have contracted the virus and are presumed to have contracted the illness in the community.

    Previously, Santa Clara County officials believed the first coronavirus-related death in the county was a woman in her 60s, who died on March 9. Instead, the newly discovered Feb. 6 death happened weeks before the first known U.S. death from the virus, which happened in Washington on Feb. 29.

    Those early deaths happened “during a time when very limited testing was available only through the CDC,” county officials said in a news release this week.

    At that time, testing was restricted only to people who had traveled and went to the hospital with specific symptoms. The three earliest deaths included people who died at home, the county said.

    Update From The Health Officer

    County of Santa Clara Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody addresses the three deaths announced last night and talks about race and ethnicity of confirmed COVID-19 cases.Full Transcript:

    Posted by County of Santa Clara Public Health Department on Wednesday, April 22, 2020

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    Contact Janice Bitters at [email protected] or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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