A great-grandmother in Kansas who died in early January 2020 has been recorded as the first death from COVID-19 in the US, weeks before the first deaths caused by the novel infection were first reported in the country.
Lovell “Cookie” Brown, a 78-year-old great-grandmother from Leavenworth, died in a hospital on January 9, 2020. The cause of death was initially recorded as a stroke and chronic obstructive lung disease. Then in May 2021, the death certificate was changed to add “COVID 19 PNEUMONIA” as one of the causes of her death, as revealed by an investigation by Bay Area News Group.
A case from the second week of 2020 has since been included on the official log of COVID-19 deaths published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s thought that this case represents Brown's death.
However, much of Brown's story is shrouded in mystery. Her identity didn't become public due to patient privacy laws. Furthermore, the hospital or state health officials did not notify any of the patient’s relatives, who only discovered the amendment after being contacted by reporters from Bay Area News Group.
Despite the news coming as a shock, the family had suspected that their beloved grandmother Lovell may have contracted COVID-19 when news of the pandemic later hit based on her symptoms, namely losing her taste around Christmas time.
It’s not certain how Brown caught the infection since she scarcely traveled in her old age, but in the months leading up to her death, she had spent some time in a communal nursing home, a setting which has been associated with devastating COVID-19 outbreaks.
When the pandemic was first taking root in late-2019/early-2020, health authorities reported the first case of COVID-19 on US soil on January 15 2020 after a man from Washington returned to the US after a trip to Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak was first identified. The first known COVID-19 death in the US emerged a couple of weeks later on February 6 in California.
Now, it appears this timeline has been pushed backed by a few weeks. Another Bay Area News Group investigation found five death certificates in five states — California, Oklahoma, Alabama, Wisconsin, and Kansas — from January 2020 that have been amended to include COVID-19 as a factor in the death.
The initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic still remain hazy, although there has been some evidence that the virus was circulating around the world slightly earlier than health authorities initially recognized. For instance, Europe's first confirmed COVID-19 infection was officially identified in France on January 24, 2020, but a hospital in Paris retested a sample taken from a man with a flu-like illness just after Christmas and found he was potentially infected with COVID-19 as early as December 27, 2019.