Two individuals who died in Santa Clara County in February had tissue samples that tested positive for COVID-19, health officials learned Tuesday, revealing the novel coronavirus was responsible for deaths in the Bay Area earlier than medical officials initially believed.
County Executive Jeff Smith confirmed the test results were received Tuesday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after being sent to the federal agency by the Medical Examiner-Coroner.
The individuals who were tested posthumously for COVID-19 died at home on February 6 and February 17.
Those two deaths, as well as another death in San Jose on March 6, of a man who later tested positive for COVID-19, occurred before the first coronavirus death was publicly reported in Santa Clara County, on March 9. Health officials had previously believed that death — of 68-year-old Santa Clara resident Azar Ahrabi — to be the first known COVID-19 fatality in the Bay Area.
“We know there was a person diagnosed in late January with the virus — but to have at least three people right around the beginning of February and late January already have the infection and two of them pass away means the virus has been around for a while,” Smith said.
The origin of these cases is believed to be within the community, Smith added. That suggests community transmission of the coronavirus was occurring in Santa Clara County well before the first U.S. case of community-acquired COVID-19 was reported in Solano County on February 26.
“It’s a much more dangerous virus than we initially recognized because we had limited testing,” Smith said.
In a prepared statement released Tuesday evening, the County of Santa Clara said the individuals died at home during a time “when very limited testing was available only through the CDC.”
“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 statement said. “As the Medical Examiner-Coroner continues to carefully investigate deaths throughout the county, we anticipate additional deaths from COVID-19 will be identified.”
Santa Clara County has so far reported 88 coronavirus-related deaths, including five new deaths reported Tuesday. The county now has 1,948 confirmed cases.
It is not clear how many posthumous coronavirus tests have been sent to the CDC by the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner. According to protocol, Smith said, nasal swabs are performed on those decedents who exhibited flu-like symptoms prior to death and submitted for viral testing that includes a panel for influenza A and B, parainfluenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19.
“COVID-19 is something we’re going to be managing for a very long time, months and likely years,” Santa Clara County public health officer Sara Cody told the county’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. “We anticipate this won’t be the only surge, we’ll have other surges that will likely come if we let up too much so we have to be extra careful to develop the information systems to enable us to monitor what we’re doing.”