Updated April 22, 4:20 p.m., with comment from Sacramento County Coroner
A person who died in Santa Clara County on Feb. 6 was infected with COVID-19, health officials announced Tuesday.
The finding makes the death the first in the United States linked to coronavirus, and throws off the timelines of when experts thought the virus was first in the country.
The announcement is the latest sign that the coronavirus could have been in California and the United States earlier than previously thought.
The first reported coronavirus death in the United State was Feb. 28 in Washington state. The first case of community spread was reported Feb. 26 for a Solano County resident who was later treated at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.
Santa Clara County officials said they performed autopsies on two people who died Feb. 6 and Feb. 17, and sent samples to U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Both came back positive for COVID-19. A third death that occurred March 6 was also linked to the disease.
Previously, the first reported COVID-19 death in Santa Clara was March 9. Health officials said that at the time of the deaths, the CDC were only testing people with a known travel history reporting specific symptoms.
The Sacramento County coroner’s office is testing in cases where the cause of death is unknown and the deceased person had symptoms consistent with COVID-19, such as fever and cough. Coroner Kim Gin said they started testing bodies for COVID-19 the last week in January, and that they’ve tested 28 people so far. All of those cases have come back negative.
“We’ve had plenty of family members tell us that they thought they had COVID-19,” she said. “So that’s a trigger for us, and we test.”
She said the testing process on the corpse is the same as it is on a live person, and involves taking a swab and sending it to a public health lab. A full autopsy does not have to be performed in order to get a sample for a COVID-19 test.
The lack of testing has been a problem nationwide, and throws into doubt many of the figures and models being used to track the spread of the disease.
A study released Monday estimates there could be as many as 200,000 COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County, where only 15,140 cases have been reported.
On Monday, Sacramento County Health Director Dr. Peter Beilenson said the county still doesn't have enough resources to test the number of people needed.
"We do not have enough testing available in California or anywhere else around the country for that matter," Beilenson said. "We would like to be able to do at least 25,000 to 50,000 tests in the near future of our long term care facilities, that being nursing homes and assisted living sites as well as the congregate shelters for the homeless, because those are two of the most vulnerable populations."
Beilenson said the number of cases could be "10 times that" which is reported because of lack of testing.
"It's hard to make a really good estimate because we simply have not been testing virtually any asymptomatic patients and a large number of the folks with this virus are clearly asymptomatic," he said.
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