New findings have changed everything we thought we knew about the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, shifting the timeline forward several weeks, if not months. Thanks to tissue sample testing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two deaths in California have now been attributed to COVID-19 — deaths that occurred three weeks before what was previously believed to be the first U.S. death from the virus.
The first death in the U.S. thought to be from COVID-19 occurred February 26 in Seattle, a city which has had one of the worst outbreaks in the country. But new testing has found that two people in Santa Clara County, California died from the virus on February 6 and February 17. These deaths were missed because, at the time, testing was reserved for people who had recently traveled abroad.
“This offers evidence of what many of us in the field had been saying” Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the New York Times. “That restricting testing was going to miss cases that could have a chain of transmission that ended up with somebody dying.’’
These findings are significant because they shift the timeline for the U.S. outbreak by several weeks. The two people who died in Santa Clara County had not recently traveled out of the country, which means they contracted it through community spread. Since the virus has a 14 day incubation period and people are usually sick for at least three weeks before they die, "that means there was community spread happening in California as early as mid-January, if not earlier than that," Dr. Ashish K. Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told CNN.
What this also means is that deaths from the virus, as well as cases, are likely much higher than the ones that are currently being reported."We really need to now go back, look at a lot more cases from January — even December — and try to sort out when did we first really encounter this virus in the United States," Jha told CNN.
As of Wednesday afternoon, there had been over 830,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. and over 46,000 deaths. In the last few months since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, the U.S. economy has taken a hit, with 22 million people losing their jobs and countless events being cancelled around the world, too. Now, CDC officials believe that, given the loosening restrictions in states like South Carolina and Georgia, a new wave of the virus could plague the country through winter, if we are unable to tackle it sooner.