First US COVID deaths happened a lot earlier than first known: report
Coronavirus Testing (Hector Retamal:AFP)

An exclusive report from the San Jose Mercury News revealed that death records indicate that an unknown respiratory virus contributed to fatalities in Jan. 2020 in California, Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

The first reported case was said to be just outside of Seattle, Washington in early January after a man flew to the state from China while ill. He survived the virus after being hospitalized for ten days.

"A half dozen death certificates from that month in six different states — California, Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma and Wisconsin — have been quietly amended to list COVID-19 as a contributing factor, suggesting the virus's deadly path quickly reached far beyond coastal regions that were the country's early known hotspots," said the report.

Until this report, the first death was said to have been Patricia Dowd of San Jose on Feb. 6, 2020, but her infection could never be traced back to anything.

"Even less is known about what are now believed to be the country's earliest victims of the pandemic. The Bay Area News Group discovered evidence of them in provisional coronavirus death counts of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) — widely considered the definitive source for death data in the United States — and confirmed the information through interviews with state and federal public health officials," the report explained. "But amid privacy concerns and fierce debate over pandemic policies, the names, precise locations and circumstances behind these deaths have not been publicly revealed. That is frustrating to some experts."

The deaths appearing in so many far-flung states may indicate that the travel restrictions should have been implemented sooner, said the report. That kind of rapid response could save lives in the future if viruses can be better tracked.

"The Wisconsin Department of Health Services now lists the probable COVID death of a 50-59-year-old woman on Jan. 22, 2020, in its data," the details show. Other states refused to cooperate with information for the report.

They explained that the new data is part of a months-long project from coroners, medical examiners and doctors across the United States working to explain when, how and why people died ahead of the outbreak.

"Certifiers are reluctant to amend death certificates unless there's a good reason to do so," the report said, citing Robert Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the NCHS.

If the death is unknown, the certifiers can add the information long after death. So, if a coroner found out that a man died of an unknown respiratory virus after flying to the U.S. from China, they could determine it could be a COVID death.

Infectious disease expert John Swartzberg concluded from the data that "it's entirely possible that COVID was present in the United States as early as December or even November. The time from infection to death from COVID is typically around three weeks."

"I would certainly guess the virus was introduced on multiple occasions before it was identified as a problem," Swartzberg said. He explained that places like Alabama and Oklahoma likely don't see a lot of travel from China. However, if people traveling to Oklahoma and Alabama were in major airports they could pick up the virus and bring it with them.

Read the full report at the San Jose Mercury News.