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The earliest known deaths from COVID-19 in the US went undetected for a week

The patients were residents at a nursing home in Washington battling an outbreak

US-HEALTH-VIRUS Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images

Two people who died last week in Seattle had undetected cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, The New York Times reported. One person was hospitalized on February 24th and died on February 26th. The other also died on February 26th at a nursing facility. There have now been nine deaths from the novel coronavirus in the US.

Both of the people who died last week were residents at the Life Care long-term nursing facility in Kirkland, Washington, where there’s an ongoing outbreak of the virus. Several of the deaths previously announced were in elderly Life Care residents, and dozens of other residents and staff have symptoms of the virus. A person in North Carolina infected with the novel coronavirus was first exposed at the facility, as well.

The deaths and continued spread of the virus from the cluster in Washington highlight the problems with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) initial recommendations for health care providers on when to test people. The agency wasn’t recommending testing for anyone who hadn’t traveled to countries with high numbers of sick people, which made it easy to miss any undetected circulation of the virus in the community. That’s why the people who died on the 26th weren’t tested until this week.

These particular deaths are worrying to public health experts because both patients were hospitalized and treated before they were diagnosed. That means they may have exposed health care workers, who wouldn’t have known to take the precautions normally made when treating COVID-19 patients.

More local and state health labs are now able to test people suspected of having the novel coronavirus, and the CDC says that testing capacity is set to increase over the next week. The CDC’s guidance, though, still says that people who haven’t traveled to countries with outbreaks and who have not been in contact with people sick with COVID-19 shouldn’t be tested unless they’re sick enough that they need to be hospitalized. That guidance likely won’t be sufficient to pick up any virus spreading among people who don’t get severely ill, which is around 80 to 85 percent of cases.

There are currently over 90,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the world, and over 3,000 people have died from the disease.