A mystery clouded the death of Patricia Dowd in early February.
The San Jose woman was a seemingly healthy 57-year-old who exercised routinely, watched her diet and took no medication. She had flu-like symptoms for a few days, then appeared to recover, family members said. Then she was found dead Feb. 6, and the initial culprit appeared to be a heart attack.
This week, authorities confirmed to Dowd’s family that she tested positive for the novel coronavirus, making her the first such documented fatality in the nation.
Health authorities in Santa Clara County did not identify Dowd by name, describing the decedent as a 57-year-old woman who died at home. The Times independently confirmed her death from family members.
Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said the deaths of three people in the county — one on Feb. 6, another on Feb. 17, and a third on March 6 — were evidence that the novel coronavirus arrived in the Bay Area far earlier than expected and spread. Previously, the first documented fatality was outside Seattle on Feb. 29.
“None of these cases had a significant travel history,” Cody said Wednesday of the three deaths. “We presume that each of them represent community transmission and that there was some significant level of virus circulating in our community in early February and probably in late March and who knows how much earlier.”
Cody referred to the cases as “iceberg tips,” an omen of a vast and unseen propagation. The person who died on Feb. 17 was a 69-year-old man. The March 6 victim was a 70-year-old man.
Cody said the robust influenza season this winter, coupled with limited testing and a nascent understanding of the coronavirus, led to this late detection.
“It would be difficult to pick out what was influenza and what was COVID-19,” Cody said. She credited the county’s medical examiner and health officials for taking the time to understand the virus and help detect these three deaths.
Family members said Dowd, who worked as manager for semiconductor company, became unusually sick in late January and was forced to cancel plans to go to a weekend funeral.
After a bout with flu-like symptoms, however, she had improved and was working from home, corresponding with a colleague at about 8 a.m. the day of her death.
About two hours later, her daughter found her dead. As family members learned more about the symptoms of the coronavirus, suspicions grew.
Dowd had a history of foreign travel, as did her co-workers at Lam Research in the Bay Area.
Her brother-in-law, Jeff Macias, said Dowd had planned to travel to China later this year and went abroad “multiple times a year to different global locations.”
“Where did this come from if it wasn’t her traveling?” Macias said. “Patricia may not be the first. It’s just the earliest we have found so far.”
He added: “Let’s keep looking so we know the extent of it — that’s the greater good, for everyone else and my family included.”
Her elder brother, Rick Cabello, agreed that his sister’s death was a shock.
Cabello said his sister was hardworking, loyal and caring. Her only daughter had just graduated college. Dowd had a network of friends that dated to her childhood and her time at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, where the siblings grew up.
“She was living the life she deserved,” Cabello said.
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