Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese spent the better part of this past week poring over death records with a highlighter in hand, trying to identify people who may have unknowingly died from Covid-19 in the first few months of the year.
His research was prompted by revelations that deaths recorded by the county Medical Examiner-Coroner’s Office rose by 20 percent in March compared to the same month a year prior. That includes a 17 percent increase in the number of people who died at home.
The so-called excess deaths in this county reflect a global trend.
This past week, the New York Times reported that about 20 to 30 percent more people have died in the first months of the year compared to the same time in 2019.
Though the county listed Covid-19 as the official cause of death for 32 people in March, officials say many more cases of the novel coronavirus probably went undetected because of a lack of testing. The statistics signal that the disease was likely spreading through the community much earlier than originally thought.
Until last week, the first Covid-19 death in the U.S. was believed to have happened on Feb. 29 in Kirkland, Washington, and the first in Santa Clara County on March 6.
Now, officials say the nation’s first Covid-19 death took place several weeks earlier, on Feb. 6, when 57-year-old San Jose resident Patricia Dowd died in her home from a ruptured heart caused by the disease.
County officials learned about Dowd’s diagnosis posthumously, after sending tissue samples to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing. A second South Bay resident died from Covid-19 on Feb. 17 and a third on March 6.
“These three individuals died at home during a time when very limited testing was available only through the CDC,” health officials told reporters in a statement about the findings. “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. As the Medical Examiner-Coroner continues to carefully investigate deaths throughout the county, we anticipate additional deaths from COVID-19 will be identified.”
Cortese, who was waiting for the county’s early 2020 death stats when the Mercury News published the data in a report last week, sharply criticized Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Michelle Jorden for not disclosing the information sooner.
“I’m disappointed the coroner did not notify the Board of Supervisors of this upward trend of deaths of 20 to 25 percent, which could translate to more than 300 additional deaths in Santa Clara County compared to the same period in 2019—much of which appear may be from the infectious disease,” he said in a written statement.
Cortese is now calling on Dr. Jorden and the county’s Public Health Department to create a data dashboard that reports death stats at least twice a month.
“You see 69-year-old woman dies from respiratory complications and it doesn’t say Covid,” he told San Jose Inside. “Somebody dies from extraordinary blood clotting in their upper body, but they don’t attribute it to Covid. I’m not asking for perfection here, but they should be looking at those [deaths].”
Cortese said he’d also like the county to start reporting case numbers by census tract.
Earlier this month, health officials began reporting the number of cases in each city in the county, but he says that’s not enough if they’re asking residents to physically distance themselves to avoid contracting the virus.
“I’ve just been kind of on a general transparency crusade,” he said, “because I know the public health officials aren’t accustomed to being held to the same level of transparency.”