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First known coronavirus victim’s heart ‘burst’ due to the infection

Published Apr 27th, 2020 6:34PM EDT
Coronavirus Stats
Image: JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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  • The first known coronavirus death in the US happened on February 6th, much earlier than initially believed.
  • An autopsy report for the 57-year-old woman has revealed that her heart “burst” as a result of the infection.
  • The patient was in otherwise good health, but she had reported flu-like symptoms in the days before her death.
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

Reports last week revealed that people were dying of coronavirus in the US weeks before the first registered death. The first COVID-19 death occurred on February 29th in Kirkland, Washington, according to previous statistics. But new test results from Santa Clara, California, show that people were dying of COVID-19 complications weeks before that, on February 6th and 17th. That means these patients may have been infected at some point in mid-to-late January, as the disease needs up to 14 days of incubation before patients exhibit symptoms.

New details about the February 6th victim have now come to light, revealing that the heart of the 57-year-old patient had “burst” as a result of the infection.

Patricia Dowd had reported flu-like symptoms in the days before her death, says The Chronicle, which obtained an autopsy report. The procedure revealed the presence of the virus in her heart, trachea, lungs, and intestines. But the damage the disease did to her heart was what proved to be fatal.

“There’s something abnormal about the fact that a perfectly normal heart has burst open,” said Bay Area forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek, who read the report. She said it had also ruptured. “Normal hearts don’t rupture.”

“This heart ruptured or tore open because of an infection of the heart muscle caused by the coronavirus,” Melinek said. Recent reports have shown that COVID-19 can often attack the heart, and some patients coming to the emergency room on suspicion of a heart attack were actually experiencing unusual COVID-19 symptoms.

Dr. Susan Parson, who performed the autopsy, said of 5-foot-1, 165-pound Dowd that she was “mildly obese” but was otherwise healthy and had no other medical conditions.

The patient had developed mild pneumonia, according to UCSF pathologist Dr. Andrew Connolly, who also reviewed the report. He said it’s possible that the inflammation of the heart was caused by the virus or an autoimmune response. The autopsy shows Dowd tested negative for the flu, parainfluenza, and other respiratory illnesses at the time. Drugs and alcohol were not found in her system.

The Santa Clara medical examiner suspected these early deaths occurred because of COVID-19, but the samples kept for Dowd and two other people were only tested last week. They all came back positive. It’s unclear where Dowd and the other patients caught the infection.

The Chronicle also obtained the autopsy report for a 69-year-old man who died on February 17th. The cause of death was COVID-19 infection complicating Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. The man had reported a fever and a cough before he died, and the autopsy found coronavirus traces in his trachea, but not in other organs.

The report notes that other Santa Clara County Chief Medical Examiner Michelle Jorden has retroactively tested tissue from 29 people who died after exhibiting flu-like symptoms. Nine of them tested positive, and the earliest was Dowd.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.