The First U.S. Coronavirus Death Was Actually Much Earlier Than We Thought

Several newly-classified deaths in California completely reshuffle the trajectory of the pandemic in the U.S.
April 22, 2020, 1:52pm
california coronavirus deaths
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.

The first coronavirus-related death in the United States happened in Santa Clara County, California on February 6 — more than three weeks before the first death in Washington state, which for more than a month was believed to be the first in the nation.

Tissue samples taken during the autopsies of three people who died on February 6, February 17, and March 6, were confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be positive for coronavirus, according to Santa Clara County. The two people who died in February both died at home, while the third died “in the county,” officials said.


The newly-classified California deaths completely reshuffle the trajectory of the pandemic in the United States. Previously, the first death reported came on February 29, and Washington state health officials later discovered that two people who had died on February 26 tested positive for the virus.

All three of those deaths were linked to the nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, where the first major cluster in the United States emerged and killed dozens of people. Earlier this month, the nursing home was fined more than $600,000 by federal officials, while state health officials halted new admissions.

A Santa Clara County press release blamed the CDC’s stringent testing requirements as a reason for why we’re just finding out about the earliest deaths, saying that the CDC’s initial guidelines “restricted testing to only individuals with a known travel history and who sought medical care for specific symptoms.”

“We had to ask the C.D.C. every single time: Does this person meet the case definition? May we send a sample?” Dr. Sara Cody, the county’s chief medical officer, told the New York Times. The county said that it “anticipate[s] additional deaths from COVID-19 will be identified” as more deaths there are scrutinized.

READ: The U.S. doesn’t have nearly enough coronavirus tests to reopen the economy

So far, California has seen 35,845 positive cases of coronavirus and 1,326 deaths, according to STAT. Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that the state is currently averaging 14,500 coronavirus tests per day, short of his goal of hitting 25,000 tests per day by the end of April.


Newsom also shot down the notion of ending his state’s stay-at-home order anytime soon, as some other states, mostly run by Republican governors, are pushing forward with plans to allow businesses to reopen.

“If we pull back too quickly, those numbers [of hospitalizations and ICU transfers] will go through the roof,” Newsom said. “And I don’t think any of the people, in their goodwill and the spirit in which they are wanting to loosen things up, want to see those numbers increase.”

Listen and subscribe: Via Apple Podcasts | Via Spotify | Via Stitcher or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

Cover: A woman is helped by a member of the Los Angeles Fire Dept. at a COVID-19 testing site in the Skid Row district Monday, April 20, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)