Virus Hit California Well Before First Thought, CDC Confirms

St. James Park near downtown San Jose, California, the seat of Santa Clara County. (Chris Marshall / CNS)

(CN) — Covid-19 killed people in America weeks earlier than first thought, according to a new report citing confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The first two deaths occurred on Feb. 6 and 17 in Santa Clara County, California — a tech hub that had previously considered March 9 its “first death” death date — the county’s health department said in a statement late Tuesday.

“This means the virus was introduced and circulating in our community far earlier than we had previously known,” said Dr. Sara Cody, director of public health for Santa Clara County, during a briefing on Wednesday morning. “There was likely a significant level of the virus circulating in early February and probably late January.”

Nationwide, the first death date associated with the new coronavirus, scientific name SARS-CoV-2, was reported in Washington state on Feb. 29.

Santa Clara said Tuesday that it has also confirmed a March 6 death was caused by Covid-19. Tissue samples obtained in the autopsies of these individuals were sent to the CDC for virus testing.

“In some ways, this is entirely unsurprising as we could only test travel-related cases in late January,” Cody said. “With that narrow case definition, we wondered at the time how we would be able to detect community transmission for people who had not traveled. The answer is we didn’t.”

Cody said a robust influenza season also flummoxed local doctors, as the pathology of the two diseases is in many ways very similar. 

However, medical examiners began to wonder if the deaths they were seeing in early February could be related to the coronavirus outbreak that was at the time raging in China and other parts of East Asia. 

Research suggests Covid-19 usually takes a month to cause death in an infected person, meaning these infections occurred sometime in late January when U.S. officials believed the virus was only in China.

Rodger MacArthur, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases expert at Augusta University, told Courthouse News he was not surprised by the discovery.

“There was very limited testing available at that time and those deaths came in the current or recently ended influenza season,” MacArthur said in an interview. “I imagine that they thought perhaps it was influenza or another circulating virus at that time. I think it does kind of raise the issue of when the first cases of Covid-19 actually occurred in the United States.”

MacArthur said there is a lot of speculation as to when the first case came to the U.S. since there was not widespread testing available at the time.

“It doesn’t surprise me that there were these earlier deaths, and it seems reasonable that suggests community spread at an early point, possibly from international travelers coming back,” he said.

“I think a lot of public health officials were worried about it, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted how widespread this virus would be.” 

Santa Clara was thought to be the second major cluster of coronavirus in the United States, as experts previously thought Kings County in Washington state was the scene of the country’s first major outbreak. 

As cases began to climb in Santa Clara County, some officials speculated the virus was spread by travelers from the Seattle area arriving in Northern California. It now appears probable that the virus was brought to the area via international travel and community transmission began in late January. 

 Santa Clara County is home to the city of San Jose, Silicon Valley and the headquarters of several major technology companies — including Apple, Facebook and Google.

The county along with six other San Francisco Bay Area counties became the first major jurisdictions in the United States to announce the stay-at-home orders that have since become widespread throughout the nation.

Santa Clara County has seen 88 deaths according to the latest numbers, and 175 people are currently hospitalized with Covid-19. The county’s early response to the outbreak has been credited with flattening the curve and preventing the type of surge of cases experienced in New York, New Orleans and other hard-hit areas of the country. 

On Wednesday, Cody did not give hope to those who hope to see a swift and comprehensive reopening of the economy in Northern California. 

“We expect that this pandemic will go on for a very, very, very long time,” she said. 

Santa Clara’s disclosure comes days after a virus antibody study out of the University of Southern California suggested that the virus had arrived earlier and was much wider spread than originally thought.

Test results from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health had put infections just below 8,000 when the study started. The college’s findings suggest infection rates between 221,000 and 442,000. 

“We haven’t known the true extent of Covid-19 infections in our community because we have only tested people with symptoms, and the availability of tests has been limited,” Neeraj Sood, lead scientist on the USC study, said at a press conference Monday announcing the study results.

But other doctors questioned the accuracy of that study.

“I don’t think the true prevalence is higher than their estimate,” Natalie Dean, an assistant professor of biostatistics at University of Florida, tweeted following the study’s release.

Dean also questioned the lack of peer review and methods. 

“Is a volunteer-driven serosurvey using a test with poorly characterized specificity the best science can do?” she wrote.

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