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California health officials announced Tuesday that tissue samples from autopsies of two individuals provide new evidence that the coronavirus was present earlier and circulating more widely in the U.S. than previously thought. Santa Clara County health officials said the new autopsy data now puts the earliest known death from the virus at Feb. 6, more than three weeks before what was previously held to be the country’s first death from the disease on Feb. 29. There are a number of important implications from the revised timeline, namely: the virus’s spread started much earlier, as early as late January, which would mean that it likely has spread much further than anticipated.
The geography of these new earliest known cases, which were believed to be contracted in the U.S. rather than through travel abroad, also indicates that the spread was much broader than previously understood. Up until now, the first known death on Feb. 29 was in Kirkland, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, which went on to be a hotspot. The fact that the newly attributed deaths were already occurring more than 800 miles away in the San Francisco Bay Area shows substantial community spread of the virus was already underway. The surfacing of these early deaths, which were not previously linked to the virus due to lack of early testing, also indicates that there could be many more virus-related deaths earlier in the year that were misattributed to other causes.
Throughout the coronavirus response, the speed and timing of collective interventions has been considered crucial because of the way the virus spreads exponentially. Moving back the known first fatality three weeks expands the time frame of the virus’s known spread by roughly 50 percent. The scope of the pandemic with the first death on Feb. 29 was 50 days since the first fatality, while the new data would put the virus’s fatality scope at 73 days. That would indicate that the official confirmed death toll is likely much higher than the 45,000-plus fatalities and that the 825,306 infections currently counted in the U.S. is also low. The new timeline will also significantly affect the modeling that has been so important in tracking the virus’s growth and the impact of our collective response. An epidemic’s start date is a vital variable that, if pushed back, could substantially change our understanding of the coronavirus’s spread and the number of people who have likely been affected.