COVID-19 Circulated in Bay Area -- and U.S. -- Considerably Earlier Than Thought

The coronavirus likely circulated in the Bay Area considerably earlier than previously thought.

Three autopsies in Santa Clara County have revealed COVID-19 killed two people in February and one in early March. Until now, a death in Washington state on Feb. 29 was believed to be the first fatality related to COVID-19 in the United States.

But according to the Santa Clara health department, a 57-year-old woman died on Feb. 6 and a 69-year-old man on Feb. 17 from COVID-19. On March 6, a 70-year-old man expired. All three individuals passed away at home. 

"What these deaths tell us is that we had the community transmission probably to a significant degree far earlier than we had known," said Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara Health Officer.  

The Santa Clara County medical examiner-coroner suspected the individuals, who exhibited flu-like symptoms, may have contracted the coronavirus even though they had not traveled to a country with an outbreak. The examiner sent autopsy tissue to the CDC for definitive testing, and yesterday those results arrived.

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During the early outbreaks in the U.S., it was difficult for doctors to differentiate flu patients from cases of coronavirus because tests were restricted to those with a travel history, exhibited specific symptoms or had contact with confirmed cases. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set  those guidelines and at the time did all the testing. Now, tests are more widely available in the Bay Area. 

There were 1,962 cases of COVID-19 and 94 deaths in Santa Clara County as of April 22.