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Health officials quietly moved the date of the 1st US COVID-19 death to January 2020

A woman's death in Leavenworth, Kansas on Jan. 9, 2020 is now considered the first recorded death from COVID-19 in the U.S.
A woman's death in Leavenworth, Kansas on Jan. 9, 2020 is now considered the first recorded death from COVID-19 in the U.S. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

The first recorded death from COVID-19 in the U.S. occurred a month earlier than previously thought: A Kansas woman's death certificate was recently amended to say she died from the disease in January 2020, according to news reports.

The 78-year-old woman, Lovell "Cookie" Brown, died on Jan. 9, 2020 in Leavenworth, Kansas, several weeks before the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in the U.S., according to The Mercury News. Initially, Brown's death certificate said she died of a stroke and chronic obstructive lung disease. But in May 2021, her doctors quietly updated the certificate to add "COVID-19 pneumonia" as a cause of death, The Mercury News reported.

That makes Brown the first documented COVID-19 death in the United States. Until recently, the first known COVID-19 death in the U.S. was thought to have occurred on Feb. 6, 2020, in a woman living in San Jose, California, Live Science previously reported.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) official page for COVID-19 death counts now lists five COVID-19 deaths that occurred in January 2020. Brown's was identified as the first, according to The Mercury News. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) also lists a single COVID-19 death in the state on Jan. 9, 2020, two months earlier than the next reported COVID-19 death in the state, according to local news outlet WIBW.

Exactly why Brown's death certificate was changed, or what evidence led to listing COVID-19 as a cause of death, is unknown. Until this week, Brown's family did not know about the change, although they had long suspected that their relative may have died from COVID-19, according to The Mercury News.

Before her death, Brown had experienced symptoms of headache, fever, diarrhea and body aches, and on Christmas Day 2019, her family remembered Brown saying that her favorite foods tasted bland, The Mercury News reported. When she began gasping for air, Brown was rushed to the hospital, where she spent a week in the ICU before her death.

Brown had not traveled internationally before her death, her family told The Mercury News. Her main trips out of the house were for appointments for diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the newspaper reported.

Dr. Thomas Fulbright, a physician at Providence Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas, who certified Brown's amended certificate, told The Mercury News that he could not talk about Brown's case or the reasons for the certificate change because of patient privacy laws.

The KDHE told WIBW that the person who died on Jan. 9, 2020, was not tested for COVID-19 because testing "was not widely available at that time." Indeed, a test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could not have been conducted in January 2020 because the virus genome sequence was not publicly released until Jan. 10, according to the CDC. The KDHE did not say whether COVID-19 testing was conducted at a later date, such as testing of stored tissue samples.

Originally published on Live Science.  

Rachael Rettner

Rachael has been with Live Science since 2010. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.