This is how they died: Santa Clara County releases information on every COVID-19 death

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By Joaquin Palomino Matthias Gafni and Erin Allday, San Francisco Chronicle, May 26, 2020

Members of the California Air National Guard, Channel Islands, assemble a COVID-19 hospital at the Santa Clara Convention Center Friday, March 27, 2020, in Santa Clara, Calif. Santa Clara County is building the temporary hospital in case of a sudden surge in patients. Photo: Jim Gensheimer / Special to The Chronicle

Health officials in Santa Clara County released detailed information Tuesday on every confirmed death from COVID-19, providing a thorough accounting of the human toll the disease has taken on the South Bay community.

The data, the most comprehensive to be published by a public health department in the Bay Area, provides the age, race, gender, residential ZIP code, cause of death and underlying health condition for all 139 people who have perished from the disease since the first documented casualty on Feb. 6.

Pneumonia, respiratory failure and acute respiratory distress syndrome were listed as a cause of death in more than three-fourths of the COVID-19 deaths. Other fatal complications included renal failure and cardiac arrest, adding to evidence that the disease can ravage not just the lungs but other systems.

More than half of the people who died from COVID-19 had hypertension as an underlying health condition, and about 40% had diabetes. Other common preexisting health issues included congestive heart failure, chronic kidney disease and coronary artery disease. Many had multiple comorbidities.

Sixteen people — or 12% — had no significant underlying health problems. Those individuals ranged in age from 54 to 82 years old. The youngest reported death was a 37-year-old man who had several comorbidities. Three people age 100 or older were among the deceased.

Roughly 40% of the people who died of COVID-19 resided in four ZIP codes that are mostly in East and Southeast San Jose — predominantly Latino and Asian communities that have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese welcomed the release of information, but said policy makers still need more to help restrain the spread of the virus.

“These are real human beings, real people and the report at least starts to present the loss of human life” in those terms, Cortese said. “I think that’s significant, but it’s just a small beginning as to where we need to go.”

The records were released Tuesday and include all deaths reviewed by the medical examiner-coroner, as well as those handled by private doctors in hospitals. County officials said they plan to eventually fold the information into their public data portal.

To date, Santa Clara County has provided a wealth of information related to the pandemic. Many other counties in California, including San Francisco, post only aggregate figures on coronavirus cases and deaths, making it difficult to find common threads that connect the people who have perished — a fact that has frustrated the public and researchers.

George Rutherford, an infectious disease expert at UCSF, said the numbers seem to fit exactly what you’d expect from the disease. “It looks pretty much standard for mortality,” he said.

As in other counties in the Bay Area, the disease has hit some groups harder than others. Across Santa Clara County, Latino residents have died at a higher rate than any other race or ethnicity.

Victor Vasquez, director of organizing and policy at the advocacy group Somos Mayfair, said at the county supervisors meeting Tuesday that the stark disparities “continue to show how much systemic inequities exist for poor black, brown and Asian communities.”

While most of the people who have died of COVID-19 were in hospitals, nursing homes or skilled residential care facilities, nine people, or about 6%, died at home — a number that UC Berkeley infectious disease expert John Swartzberg found noteworthy.

“If somebody’s got COVID-19 they should get treated for it. There are good treatment options,” he said. “Clearly, some of it relates to people being scared to death to go into a hospital.”

Such data are dependent on scattered and inconsistent testing policies that make it difficult to understand the true scope of the pandemic. Judy Melinek, a Bay Area forensic pathologist, said that a lack of testing likely led to an “undercount” of COVID-19 deaths.

“The question I have is who is not on that list because they were not tested either because there was not sufficient COVID-19 testing at the time or they had no symptoms and weren’t tested,” Melinek said.

County Supervisor Cortese has asked the county to provide more information, including summary statistics on all deaths, not just those known to be caused by COVID-19.

“That will help inform where we should be focusing resources, where we’re having clusters within the community, and whether or not we’ve had unattributed deaths that are suspect,” he said. “I want the who, what, why, when and where.”

Joaquin Palomino, Matthias Gafni and Erin Allday are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: and