For researchers and practitioners who've been tracking the virus' spread, the earlier deaths in Santa Clara County are proof that there were "invisible chains of transmission" occurring in various US cities in mid-January, says Alessandro Vespignani, director of the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University.
But Santa Clara County officials said that autopsies of two people who died at their homes February 6 and February 17 showed that the individuals were infected with the virus.
"While we had a few cases detected in the United States, we actually already had hundreds and then thousands of transmission events occurring across the country", he says.
This means the person likely caught the virus through community spread.
"Over the weekend we received a large backlog of test results from one lab", she said.
"(This) tells us we had community transfer far earlier than we had known, and that indicates the virus was probably introduced and circulating far earlier than we had known", Cody said. Officials later attributed two February 26 deaths to the virus.
New information has lead California officials to believe the first American to die from coronavirus may have contracted it in late 2019.
While many countries were ramping up testing, widespread testing in the United States was delayed because a CDC created test did not work.
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"These three individuals died at home during a time when very limited testing was available only through the CDC", the coroner statement said, adding that testing at the time was restricted to people with a known travel history and who were showing specific symptoms.
These two people had flu-like symptoms before dying.
The recent revelations came after California Gov. Gavin Newsom promised a "deep dive" update Wednesday of the state's ability to test for the coronavirus and to track and isolate people who have it.
The three cases were discovered because the county medical examiner's office was not satisfied it had found the correct cause of death, Dr Cody said. Both people died in their homes, and had their tissues tested for Coronavirus, as did another who died in early March (and also tested positive). County executive Dr. Jeff Smith pointed out that with the way virus trends were heading in late March, COVID-19 must have gone unnoticed in the state for some time.
As more deaths in the county are investigated, it's likely that more will be tied to the virus, the county said.
Santa Clara County was among the first areas in the U.S. to announce stay-at-home orders on March 16 - a measure which Cody noted was a "good decision" since "there was even more transmission than we recognized" at the time. The U.S. death and confirmed cases totals are far higher than any other country's. "That said, I think the peak of the curve (in coronavirus cases in the US) is what we thought it was".
"In other words, all of the country monitors flu-like illness generically, over time".
"Let's keep looking so we know the extent of it", he said of the virus.
And so there had to be chains of transmission that go back much earlier.