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Two people who died in February in California's Santa Clara County had COVID-19 — weeks earlier than the country's first previously known coronavirus-related death was reported.
Tissue samples from autopsies performed on a 57-year-old woman who died on Feb. 6 and a 69-year-old man who died on Feb. 17 showed that both individuals had COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, county medical officials said.
Previously, the first coronavirus-related death in the country was known to be on Feb. 29, when a man in his fifties died in Washington state.
The two people in Santa Clara County died at home, officials said, "during a time when very limited testing was available only through the CDC." The county coroner sent their tissue samples to the CDC and was informed Tuesday that both had COVID-19.
"What these deaths tell us is that we had community transmission probably to a significant degree far earlier than we had known," Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody told reporters Wednesday. "That indicates that the virus was probably introduced and circulated in the community, again, far earlier than we had known."
Cody said the virus likely had been circulating in the county as early as January, "but we weren't looking for it."
"It may have been part of our influenza numbers because it looks a lot like influenza," she added. "It's really difficult to pick those things apart absent confirmatory testing."
Total confirmed US cases:
As of Wednesday morning, there have been more than 813,000 COVID-19 cases and 44,673 deaths in the country. But those numbers aren't widely believed to be accurate; health care workers have said there are many more people dying of COVID-19 than what is being reported.
The Trump administration has been criticized for failing to act earlier to stem the spread of the virus, despite top officials being warned about the coronavirus threat months before the first confirmed case in the US. Even as cases across the country climbed, the US lagged far behind in testing, partly due to the CDC's stringent testing requirements and botched test kits.
Santa Clara County officials cited the CDC's initial narrow testing criteria in their statement Tuesday. As the county coroner continues investigating deaths, officials said, "We anticipate additional deaths from COVID-19 will be identified."