How Silicon Valley became California’s epicenter of the coronavirus

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Silicon Valley has long driven California’s economic engine. When the coronavirus hit U.S. shores, the region also become California’s epicenter of contagion.

Authorities in Santa Clara County, where more than 2 million people live, were well aware the virus would arrive. They tried to prepare. But without much federal help, they were unable to stop it.

In rapid fire, Santa Clara became home to the second COVID-19 case in California and the seventh in the United States, on Jan. 31. Two days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that a Santa Clara woman had become the nation’s ninth case, and like the first, she had recently traveled from Wuhan, the epicenter of China.

But Asian travel alone can’t be blamed for the regional outbreak. The Silicon Valley is packed with travelers, a byproduct of becoming the world’s high-tech capital, home to Apple, Google, Facebook and other companies. Authorities here say the infections probably had multiple origins, and by late February, the virus was spreading through the community.

“Now is the time to prepare for the possibility of widespread community transmission,” the county department of public health announced after a third county resident was infected on Feb. 28

The tipping point came on March 6, when county public health authorities recommended all large gatherings be postponed.

The San Jose Sharks professional hockey team went ahead with a home game that evening anyway, playing before an announced attendance of more than 14,500 fans.

Infectious disease experts and county officers were livid.

COVID-19 “clearly is a virus that likes high-density populations,” said Dr. Jeffrey V. Smith, Santa Clara’s executive officer, who is a physician and a lawyer. ““That is why social distancing is so very, very, very important.”

A few days later, the county turned its recommendation into an order. Large gatherings were banned, making the county a trailblazer for the social distancing requirements later adopted statewide.

As of Tuesday, the virus had killed 16 people in Santa Clara, more than any other California county. While Los Angeles now has more cases than Santa Clara, the Silicon Valley, with a smaller population, has a higher infection rate.

Why did Silicon Valley become the California COVID-19 breeding ground? It may take years for analysts to provide full answers. But Smith, Santa Clara’s executive officer, said the virus exploded in part because the county, in real time, was unable to track and trace its early spread.

“Because we don’t have surveillance testing on a local level, we are in some sense flying blind,” Smith said.

And why was the county unable to conduct such surveillance? According to Smith, the Trump administration had effectively put pandemic planning on hold, and his county and others were not getting the testing and training they wanted.

“In a very real way, it shows how our federal government has turned us into a Third World country,” said Smith, 66. Despite being at high risk of infection, he has continued reporting to the county’s emergency operations center, seven days a week.

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