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First U.S., And Kansas, Deaths From COVID Came Earlier Than Previously Known

Federal money helped pay for free COVID-19 testing in downtown Lawrence, Kansas
Stephen Koranda
Kansas News Service
A mass-testing event in Lawrence last year aimed at identifying COVID cases that might otherwise go undetected.

New data from the federal government show an early COVID-19 death in Kansas could be the first in the country.

The first documented COVID-19 death in the United States appears to have come months earlier than long suspected when the virus killed a person in Kansas.

Updated records from the National Center for Health Statistics currently show the first death from the virus in the country happened the week ending Jan. 11, 2020, and that there was only one COVID-19 death that week.

Kansas has also recently revised its records to show a single COVID-19 death on Jan. 9, 2020.

Coroners and other medical professionals responsible for determining causes of death could still conclude that the pandemic had begun to kill people in the country even earlier.

That reflects how little was known about the virus in the early weeks and months of the pandemic. Virtually no testing was available. Scientists were still learning about the virus and its spread around the world.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment now logs that COVID-19-related death on Jan. 9, 2020. That suggests the virus could have arrived in Kansas, and the country, earlier than previously known. It was the same day the World Health Organization announced a cluster of novel coronavirus cases in patients hospitalized with pneumonia in Wuhan, China.

The revelation came from updated death certificates reviewed by the states and reported to the federal government. The January cases were originally reported by The (San Jose) Mercury News.

Kansas officials said they cannot reveal more information about the death such as the age of the person who died, whether they lived in a long-term care facility or which county they lived in. Doing so, they said, would violate state law. But the state regularly shares vital records when prisoners in state correctional facilities die. Kansas counties also provide other non-identifying information about COVID-19 cases and deaths.

March 2020 was when the state initially confirmed its first known death from COVID-19. That was a Wyandotte County man in his 70s living in a long-term care facility. At that time, only four confirmed cases of the virus existed in the state.

Cases and deaths ballooned to a peak around the end of 2020. The highest daily death count was 62 on December 22, 2020.

Kansas saw a steady decline in cases and deaths through the spring and summer as vaccines became widely available. The delta variant drove a new COVID surge in recent months.

Hospitals in Kansas are now struggling with an influx of mostly unvaccinated patients sick with COVID-19. Some facilities are now rejecting requests to take patients because they’re short on intensive care beds and staff.

Abigail Censky is the political reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @AbigailCensky or email her at abigailcensky (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

It’s my job to explain statewide politics to our audience with clarity and context. Sometimes that means tracking developments in the Legislature and shining light on things that alter the laws, the taxes and the services of state government. Other times it means traveling throughout the state to amplify the voices and stories of Kansans. And, critically, I strive to hold our public officials accountable. Reach me at abigailcensky@kcur.org.
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