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Autopsies reveal first confirmed U.S. coronavirus-related deaths occurred in California in February

Coronavirus
This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19
(National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Two coronavirus-infected people died in Santa Clara County on Feb. 6 and Feb. 17, the medical examiner revealed Tuesday, making them first documented COVID-19 fatalities in the United States.

Until now, the first fatality was believed to have occurred in Kirkland, Wash., on Feb. 29.

For the record:

6:03 PM, Apr. 22, 2020A previous version of this story said Silicon Valley had eight COVID-19 deaths. As of Wednesday, Santa Clara County health officials had confirmed 94 deaths in the region.

Officials previously had said the first Silicon Valley death was March 9. But the Santa Clara County medical examiner revealed Tuesday that people who died Feb. 6, Feb. 17 and March 6 also died of COVID-19.

“These three individuals died at home during a time when very limited testing was available only through the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. Testing criteria set by the CDC at the time restricted testing to only individuals with a known travel history and who sought medical care for specific symptoms,” the county said in a statement. “As the Medical Examiner-Coroner continues to carefully investigate deaths throughout the county, we anticipate additional deaths from COVID-19 will be identified.”

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Silicon Valley was an early hotbed of the coronavirus outbreak. So far it has reported nearly 2,000 cases and 94 deaths.

There have been growing concerns that the new coronavirus has been in California longer than experts first believed.

Dr. Jeff Smith, a physician who is the chief executive of Santa Clara County government, said earlier this month that data collected by the CDC, local health departments and others suggest it was “a lot longer than we first believed” — most likely since “back in December.”

“This wasn’t recognized because we were having a severe flu season,” Smith said in an interview. “Symptoms are very much like the flu. If you got a mild case of COVID, you didn’t really notice. You didn’t even go to the doctor. The doctor maybe didn’t even do it because they presumed it was the flu.”

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In January and most of February, there was little if any community testing in California.

A preliminary study, conducted by researchers at Stanford University, estimates that between 2.5% and 4.2% of Santa Clara County residents had antibodies to the new coronavirus in their blood by early April. Antibodies are an indication that a person’s immune system has responded to a past infection.

Though the county had reported roughly 1,000 cases in early April, the Stanford researchers estimate the actual number was between 48,000 and 81,000, or 50 to 85 times greater.

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