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Death Records Suggest Coronavirus Was Not In San Diego Early This Year

Coronavirus testing at the San Diego county lab, Feb. 28, 2020.
Matt Hoffman
Coronavirus testing at the San Diego county lab, Feb. 28, 2020.

When did the coronavirus arrive in San Diego? It’s an impossible question to answer because testing has taken so long to ramp up.

However, county death records offer some insight into when the pandemic might have first taken hold. In a number of places across the country deaths were up significantly — as much as 50 percent — during the early months of the year.

In Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Michigan, total death counts were on average 50 percent higher than normal levels for the period, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. In New York City, the number of deaths was three to six times higher.

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Source: San Diego County Assessor and Recorder.

But not in San Diego. The total deaths recorded by the San Diego County Assessor and Recorder between January and April went up by just 1.2% from 2019 to 2020. In January, deaths went up by about 3%; in February they went up less than 1%; and in March they actually went down by 2.5%.

RELATED: A Snapshot Of Who Died From Coronavirus In San Diego County

In April, when you might expect to see a big increase because of the coronavirus, there wasn't one. Deaths this April only went up by about 3% from 2019.

But we shouldn’t jump to any firm conclusions based on these numbers, said Eyal Oren, an epidemiologist at San Diego State University. Comparing deaths between San Diego County and other areas is not "comparing apples to apples," he said.

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"There's a lot of variation," Oren said. "How long it takes a death certificate to be completed, what's the cause of death, what's the delay in reporting and calculating deaths especially among people recently testing positive or recently infected."

Still, Oren said the lack of a spike in deaths in San Diego County suggests the virus was likely not widely circulating before stay at home orders, as it may have been in other places like New York City.

"There is a possibility that there were just more introductions of the virus in the East Coast and New York City, but we don't really know," he said. He added that California and San Diego acted quickly with stay-at-home-orders, which may have cut back on the deaths due to coronavirus.

But, he said, there's another factor to consider: San Diego has a relatively young population—just 13% of the 3.9 million residents are over the age of 65—which means the virus may not be as deadly here. In contrast, in Italy where the virus hit hard, 23% of the population is 65 years and over.

There are many variables, he said.

"It's complicated, the number of flu deaths is half of what it was last year, so you have to think of that pie and think about how different parts have shifted," he said.

Deaths due to traffic accidents are down by about 50% in California, according to a study from UC Davis.

"There's some silver linings I suppose," Oren said.

Death Records Suggest Coronavirus Was Not In San Diego Early This Year
Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.