SANTA CLARA (CBS SF) — Since tech worker Patricia Dowd died of coronavirus in early February, COVID has taken a grim toll in Santa Clara County, growing into the third leading cause of death this year in Silicon Valley, health officials announced Wednesday.

Dowd was a 57-year-old senior manager for a Silicon Valley semiconductor firm when she became sick with flu-like symptoms in late January and passed away on Feb. 6th. She is considered to be among the first deaths from the virus in the United States.

Since her death, COVID has claimed 631 lives in the county including nine new fatalities reported on Wednesday.

With a detectable air of desperation, county officials Wednesday made the very same plea they made just before Thanksgiving – to stay home and avoid any holiday gatherings. The case explosion that since followed continues to push county hospitals to the limit.

“Tragically, these are 632 families who are grieving this holiday season,” said Cindy Chavez, President of the County of Santa Clara Board of Supervisors. “Let’s not forget the countless others who have loved ones in the hospital, and the healthcare workers trying to keep them alive as we speak. A simple family meal may seem harmless until it is too late. Please protect the ones you love by staying home and staying safe.”

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In mid-November, a week before Thanksgiving, an average of three people died per day due to COVID-19 in the county. A month later, that average increased to nearly six people per day.

“Our friends and our family are dying of COVID,” said Dr. Sara Cody, Health Officer for the County of Santa Clara at a Wednesday news conference. “We are on track to have COVID being the third leading cause of death of all causes in our county. The deaths always lag (behind) the cases, always lag (behind) the hospitalizations. And unfortunately what we know from these numbers is that our deaths are going to continue to rise into the New Year.”

Director of Health Preparedness Dr. Ahmad Kama said with the county near hospital capacity, the prospect of rationing medical care has already been envisioned.

“On the other side of that line are things that would have been unthinkable a few months ago,” said Kama. “We are talking about people in gurneys without a bed to go to. We are talking about rationing what scarce resources our exhausted health system has left to those who will benefit the most.”

“Please, I implore you all, pick up your phones,” Kamal bluntly urged. “Cancel your gatherings. Cancel your travel.”

County Counsel James Williams said while the thought of not sharing the holidays with loved ones is hard, staying home is what is needed to save lives.

“Do not gather. We know how difficult that is to ask, we know how difficult that is to mandate, but that is exactly, unfortunately, the reality right now, right here, in this moment.”

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Cody also begged families not to come together for gatherings on Christmas — a second bump to the current surge would have a devastating impact on the already heavily stressed county health care system.

“It has taken all our collective might to try to calm things down,” she said. “But if we have a surge on top of a surge, we will definitely break. We cannot afford that. We cannot afford another surge on a surge.”

Cody said she understood this has been a difficult year for families and the desire is so strong to be with relatives over the holidays.

“This is the time when we want to come together, we need to come together but we cannot come together in person,” she said. “It’s just not safe this year. One of the enormous, enormous challenges of COVID is that it is silent. You can’t see it. Your loved one doesn’t look dangerous and you can have chains of silent spread that end in someone being hospitalized or end in someone dying.”

The rate of new infections has begun to level off and Cody credited actions taken by the community and changes to people’s behavior. But she again warned of the consequences of gathering.

“But if we each do our part and stay just within our household bubble,” she continued. “We can prevent people from dying and that is what we must do. That is the holiday gift that we must give each other.”


Wilson Walker contributed to this report.