Late last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) chief statistician on death received reports about a person dying from COVID-19 in January 2020. Although the person who certified the death clarified that it was meant to be June 2020 and not January 2020, Robert Anderson, the chief of mortality statistics at a branch of the CDC, launched a yearlong campaign to recheck the available data regarding the first death of COVID-19 in the United States.
As per the findings of Anderson and his team, four people possibly died from COVID-19 in January 2020. They are from Alabama, California, Kansas, and Wisconsin, but there is no available data about the possibility of them recently traveling to China before they died.
The alleged first COVID-19 death in the U.S. took place in Kansas and was recorded on Jan. 9, 2020. It was reclassified based on the person’s symptoms as it overlapped with the symptoms of other respiratory illnesses.
With this available information, Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, said, “My guess is that they’re probably not all real, maybe not even any of them. If any of them are real, they’d be travel-linked cases, and that’s conceivable.” He pointed out that the COVID-19 virus spreading outside of China before mid-December 2019 is unlikely, so non-traveler deaths in the United States the following month could be doubtful.
Anderson embarked on the journey of finding the truth regarding these claims because he said that it is a public health concern and a personal preoccupation. He revisited the 2007 data when one person was claimed to be dead because of diphtheria, a serious bacterial infection that is unheard of in the United States. Later, it was determined that diphtheria was not the cause of death, and it was a coding error. Anderson noted, “That was a little embarrassing to have in our data file. Even though it’s just one death, in that context, it has a big impact because it’s high-profile.”
Because they do not have access to patient samples or medical records, the CDC has to trust the people who sign the COVID-19 death certificates. Anderson then said he cannot say if the January 2020 deaths are accurate, but he thinks it is “unlikely that certifiers would have capriciously changed the death certificate.”