Up until recently, the first COVID-19 death in the US was thought to have occurred in Washington state on Feb. 29. But autopsies have revealed two earlier coronavirus deaths in California, one on Feb. 6 and the other on Feb. 17, the AP reports. The San Francisco Chronicle calls it "a stunning discovery" that radically changes the timeline of the virus in the country and adds to other recent evidence that it was circulating in the US earlier than previously believed. "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," Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith says, per the Mercury News.
Both victims died at home in Santa Clara County and tissue samples ultimately revealed they had the virus when they died. Officials also revealed a third death in the county not previously attributed to coronavirus, that one on March 6. Before Tuesday's announcement, the first recorded COVID-19 death in the hard-hit county was March 9. The three newly revealed deaths are believed to have been cases of "community spread," meaning the victims caught the virus from an as-yet-unknown person in the community, as opposed to transmission via travel or "close contact" with someone known to have the virus. That's important because it indicates community transmission was occurring in the county long before the US' first confirmed case of community spread, which came on Feb. 26 in California's Solano County. (Read more coronavirus stories.)