Officials discover coronavirus started spreading in US much earlier than they thought

COVID-19 deaths reveal earlier timeline

Experts have released new information about just how long the coronavirus (COVID-19) might have been silently spreading in the United States.

DETROIT – Experts have released new information about just how long the coronavirus (COVID-19) might have been silently spreading in the United States.

Health officials in California said the first U.S. coronavirus deaths actually occurred weeks before they previously believed. This comes as no surprise to doctors.

Many doctors had patients earlier on that they now believe were COVID-19 cases. But they didn’t qualify for testing at the time because they either didn’t have a history of travel to China or the didn’t have the initially reported symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath.

But now there’s concrete proof that the timeline of cases started much earlier.

The first confirmed case of the coronavirus in the U.S. came Jan. 21 in a man from Washington state who developed symptoms after returning from a trip to Wuhan, China.

But the first confirmed death was thought to be more than a month later, on Feb. 29, in Kirkland, Washington.

Health officials there later found two deaths on Feb. 26 were due to the virus, pushing the timeline back three days.

But coroners across the country are now looking back at other deaths. The medial examiner in Santa Clara County, California, sent tissue samples collected during autopsies performed in February to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing.

Samples taken from patients who died at home on Feb. 6 and Feb. 17 both tested positive for the coronavirus. That pushes the fatality timeline back 20 days.

Health officials believe the patients were infected in the community. Neither is known to have a travel history.

Given that deaths tend to lag infections by about two weeks, the first patient could have been infected in mid-January. It’s likely the coronavirus was already spreading in the U.S. far earlier than initially reported -- hidden in a bad flu season and undetected by rigid testing rules.

As one health officials described it: COVID-19 deaths represent the tips of icebergs in terms of infections. For every death there could be 50-100 infections in the community. Due to the limited testing that’s been done, we don’t know how big the iceberg is, but we now know for certain that it struck us weeks earlier than previously thought.

It’s also possible the timeline could shift even farther back as more deaths are reviewed. It might be that many people who were thought to have the flu or other viruses in January and February had COVID-19. That will be more difficult to determine, but it could affect how many people might have antibodies against the virus moving forward.

About the Authors:

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.