First COVID-19 death in Kansas now believed to be from early January 2020

By: - August 24, 2021 5:34 pm

A recently revised record lists COVID-19 as a contributing factor to a death in Kansas in January 2020. Previously, the earliest known death from COVID-19 in Kansas was two months later. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

TOPEKA — A medical examiner in Kansas recently determined COVID-19 contributed to an individual’s death in January 2020, dramatically altering the timeline of when the virus first appeared in the state.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment confirmed the finding but declined to provide the exact date or county where the infected person died. Previously, the state’s earliest known death from COVID-19 was two months later, on March 11.

State and federal officials wouldn’t provide clarifying information about how the medical examiner reached the conclusion that COVID-19 was a contributing factor in an 18-month-old death, or why the cause of death is being reconsidered now.

Matt Lara, spokesman for KDHE, said the decision to list COVID-19 as a cause of death or contributing factor on the January 2020 death certificate was made without KDHE’s involvement.

“The medical certifier felt he had enough information to rule this as a COVID-19 death,” Lara said. “Testing was not widely available at that time, and this particular decedent was not tested for COVID-19.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data indicate there was a death in Kansas during the week ending Jan. 11, 2020, which would make it the earliest known death from COVID-19 anywhere in the United States. CDC media communications staff didn’t respond to multiple inquiries for this story.

The San Jose, California, Mercury News first reported on the quiet addition of early pandemic deaths to the CDC’s online database, based on revised death certificates. The addition of January 2020 deaths from Kansas, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and California precede what was previously believed to be the country’s first known death from COVID-19 on Feb. 6, 2020, in San Jose.

The earliest known case of COVID-19 in Kansas was announced March 7, 2020, and involved a Johnson County woman younger than 50 who had traveled to the northeast part of the country. The first reported death from COVID-19 in Kansas was a man in his 70s who lived at a nursing home in Wyandotte County and died March 11.

Health officials have suggested the virus could have been circulating much earlier than anyone realized, before medical professionals had guidance or supplies for diagnosing and testing possible cases. Kansas recorded higher than usual numbers of influenza and pneumonia cases in the early weeks of 2020.

Still, the revelation that somebody in Kansas had died from the virus two months sooner than anybody realized is “a tremendous game changer on the history of this,” said Rep. John Eplee, a Republican and family physician who works at Amberwell Health hospital in Atchison.

“I think it will, in a forensic way, have significant impact on where this originated from,” Eplee said. “I’m sure they’re still doing a lot of studying to figure out these cases, where they came from.”

Eplee said a medical examiner would need more than just a death record to determine whether COVID-19 factored into a person’s death.

“I’ve filled out a lot of death certificates,” he said, “and you’ve got to have more data and more information to review before you would back up and say, ‘No, no, this was a COVID death, not a pneumonia death or a flu death. It was COVID.’ ”

The total number of deaths in Kansas from COVID-19 now stands at 5,498, a number rising in recent weeks as a result of the highly contagious delta variant.

Nearly all of the new hospitalizations and deaths involve people who haven’t been vaccinated against the disease. According to CDC figures, 56.3% of Kansans ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated.

Eplee said the change in the timeline of when the virus arrived in Kansas doesn’t have much bearing on the current struggle.

“For lack of a better term, we’re dealing with a horrible problem right now with the delta variant,” Eplee said.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.